Thursday, June 18, 2015

"This is the rapist from the government" - on Sowmya Rajendran's The Lesson

[A shorter version of this review appeared in Open magazine]

The 2012 “Nirbhaya” gang-rape case led to much-needed public discourse about sexual violence and gender discrimination in India, but it also opened cans of nasty-looking worms, bringing into clearer relief a society’s deep-seated chauvinism, lack of introspection, and reverence for status quos. In recent times we have had people in positions of power linking sexual assault with chowmein-eating, a “spiritual guru” with a large following saying rape isn’t possible if the girl is not in some way compliant (it takes two hands to clap), and the extolling of “Bharat” as the unspoiled, sari-clad twin of the hedonistic, westernized “India” who is always “asking for it”.

In such a climate, the problem for a parodist, or for a writer of allegories, is that life always seems a dozen steps ahead – even when it is jogging backwards. How does one effectively do satirical exaggeration, or create a simplified parable, when the real world is overrun with politicians raving incoherently about "dented-painted women" and senior lawyers puffing their chests out and proclaiming that a daughter who had a pre-marital relationship should be burnt alive (but only in a gated farmhouse, you mustn’t disturb the neighbours)? Can fiction be much more dystopian than reality?

And so to Sowmya Rajendran’s slim novel The Lesson, which is a satire built around a series of archetypes. The characters are given no names: they are known as “the rapist” (a government employee socially sanctioned to deal with women who go to pubs, have multiple boyfriends, or sully the holiest of all institutions, Marriage, by seeking divorce), “the moral policeman”, “the media mogul” and so on. And the woman at the story's centre, the one who has transgressed so dramatically that a brand new punishment must be devised, is just “the second daughter” – a fitting tag given this is a society where women are defined mainly in terms of their relationship to men. But her acts of defiance, both at the beginning and at the very end, will drive the plot and, finally, supply a fourth-wall-breaking-moment where a hitherto immersed audience is slapped in the face with its own complicity.

These people inhabit a world where the unspeakable has been normalized. The rapist (who is a regular guy in many ways, stressed out by his work, prone to headaches and performance anxiety, thinking sadly about his wife and little daughter back in his hometown) simply calls up his next victim and tell her, very politely, that she has a lesson scheduled for Sunday, and what time would be convenient? Dupatta-regulators ensure prescribed standards of morality, the media mogul literally has a pair of Golden Geese in a cage (the male violently pecks at the female, as if in imitation of its human counterparts) and the Conduct Book contains a law – no, wait, it’s only a “guideline” for now, but a strong one – that a raped woman must kill herself if her family comes to know. Outrageous things are said with a straight face, injustice and persecution are taken for granted, and whatever hope there is comes in tiny slivers: hardened sorts like the moral policeman do show signs of being real human beings with real emotions when things get too personal, when their own loved ones are in danger.

Rajendran’s writing is effective when it adopts the mode of icy detachment, as in a scene where a woman who is to be raped on a TV reality show is briefed about the actress who will play her in the buildup episodes (so that the audience will “enjoy the show” better). I liked how the seemingly casual, almost gratuitous use of the word “rape” (“For how long will he rape me?”, “He’d never raped a pregnant woman before this and he wasn’t sure if he liked the idea”) echoes and comments on the offhand (and non-ironical) overuse of the word in the real world, e.g. “I raped that guy in the college debate”. Also notable is the book’s recognition that the patriarchy can in some ways be oppressive of men too, through its insistence on defining templates for maleness: there is a conversation about the pressures of being “The Only Son”, there are glimpses of the distant pasts of people like the president and the moral policeman, which humanise them – to a degree – and suggest that they are products of a social framework.

On the whole though, The Lesson is hit and miss, very sharp at times, earnest and over-expository at other times, and I have rarely been this conflicted while writing a review. Part of me felt it was heavy-handed; another part recognised that some of the talk around sexual harassment in this country has been so confounding, so much from a surreal otherworld, that there is no point trying to underplay things. Besides, it goes without saying that such a book will mean very different things to different people. For the privileged male like yours truly, some of it might seem shrill and stretched out. A reader who gets squeamish easily or has limited tolerance for dark humour might think it in poor taste, even repulsive. On the other hand, for someone who has grown up in a very conservative environment and lived with the worst controlling aspects of tradition, it might not even read like exaggeration, more like an unvarnished record of what daily life can be like.

Personally I wished a few more inventive things had been done with the premise, that there had been more passages with the kinetic energy of the one where a dupatta-regulator has a waking nightmare about being surrounded by acres of human nudity (“He looked out of the window and saw a naked man on a motorbike, his fat, hairy legs straddling it […] the dupatta regulator’s eyes were drawn to the pockmarks on his arm, a constellation of acne scars”). Most of all – and it feels odd saying this about a story with a rapist and his target as protagonists – I thought the book could have been funnier, more biting. It is occasionally blunted by verbosity, as in a conversation where the dupatta-regulator explains “if a student wears her dupatta properly, she is automatically protected from molestation. If you were molested in spite of wearing a dupatta, it means only one thing: you were not wearing it properly.”

But even if it doesn’t have the caustic power of the best satire – the quality that has you shaking in laughter even as the punch to your solar plexus knocks you breathless – The Lesson is provocative, driven by understandable anger, and a baby step in what will hopefully be a more extensive tradition of abrasive, absurdist writing that shakes and discomfits a society. One might say we are asking for it.

1 comment:

  1. The book sounds interesting. My own novel Lemon Girl is on much the same theme and is getting great response too. But this book seems to be written in a new way. Would definitely like to check it out and learn from it.