When unwritten rules become the law of the land

When unwritten rules become the law of the land

By ADITYA MANI JHA | | 6 June, 2015
Sowmya Rajendran.
Sowmya Rajendran’s first prose novel for adults is a sucker-punch to patriarchy’s gut. Its forthright approach and grim parody shred the hypocrisies of Indian society, writes Aditya Mani Jha.
The Lesson
Sowmya Rajendran
HarperCollins India
Pages: 200
Price: Rs 399

We have all seen it coming: the spectre of reality television, a monster that chips away at the quality of both reality and television. To those curious about the ontological implications of gorging on reality shows, know this: you are, in essence, watching yourself, or at any rate, a projection of what you want you or your children (who are, of course, your projections at a literal as well as metaphorical level) to be. Which means that the day is not far when you will watch a show about watching reality shows; it's the logical extrapolation of a hare-brained trend. I found it fitting, therefore, that in Sowmya Rajendran's The Lesson, an expertly-plotted dystopian allegory, used a reality show of the same name to make its point about gender violence and the true extents of human apathy.

The Lesson imagines an India where the unwritten, unofficial rules that women have to follow in this country are codified, institutionalised and implemented through threats of censure and even violence. There are machines to check if your daughter is of marriageable age (or as Rajendran says, if they are fit to enter the "Holy Institution"). There is a designated Dupatta Regulator at colleges, to check if women are modestly dressed. There are Moral Policemen, of course. And there is a Conduct Book that tells women how to behave in various personal and social situations.

The coup de grace is delivered by a vigilante called, quite simply, "the rapist": he is a government-designated correctional officer, who rapes women deemed to be "asking for it". This trope leads to a chilling passage in the first chapter itself, a microcosm of the horrors that are to confront the reader soon.

"As he dumped these essays into a file to be read later, a familiar handwriting caught his eye. It was his wife. She had written to him stating that she was appealing to him on the grounds of marriage. She was well within her rights to ask for it. The rapist considered this and smiled. His wife lived in his hometown, far from the capital city, and her plea would have to be deferred. Besides, he did not want to be accused of favouring someone he was related to. Some good samaritan was bound to file an RTI and catch him with his pants down."

Crucially, the men in The Lesson are all identified by their professions while the women are defined by their relationships with men: there's a dentist, a policeman, the President of the Adjustment Bureau and so on, but the two major female characters are simply "the first daughter" and "the second daughter". Walking this tightrope throughout a novel, even a relatively slim one like this, is no mean feat. In the absence of named characters, it falls upon the author to construct enough memorable traits or moments that make us remember the different personalities featured in the book; to her credit, Rajendran does this in style. So we have the second daughter (the feisty protagonist of the book) married to an abusive dentist who uses tooth extraction as torture. (When she demands a divorce from the Adjustment Bureau, the President calls upon the services of the rapist to teach her a lesson.) 

There are machines to check if your daughter is of marriageable age (or as Rajendran says, if they are fit to enter the “Holy Institution”). There is a designated Dupatta Regulator at colleges, to check if women are modestly dressed. There are Moral Policemen, of course. And there is a Conduct Book that tells women how to behave in various personal and social situations.

In another memorable scene, we see the dentist as the most smothered son in the world. Why do mothers — silently or otherwise — abet abusive behaviour perpetrated by their sons? Read this chapter to realise how women who are indoctrinated into the ways of patriarchy can wield the whip pretty fiercely, too.

Conversely, the author also takes pains to show us the plight of the enlightened man, who sees this cruel regime for what it is, but is powerless in the face of the majority. So you have the father of the protagonist, who loves to buy her books, pampers her and encourages her to pursue a PhD in anthropology. You have a retired moral policeman, who appears to have a healthy relationship with this wife, but is still obliged to sweet-talk the rapist. Even the president of the dreaded Adjustment Bureau was once a "quaint boy" who fell in love with a feminist and even married her (I won't spoil this for readers by revealing what happened next).

One could look at the internal consistency of this book's world and make up one's mind about the book that way. But that's not the correct way of evaluating an allegory like The Lesson: when you take a good long look at the world around you, you'll understand that it's really not all that different from the universe of the book. Earlier this week, a number of news outlets reported on the rise of "corrective rapes" in Hyderabad. Here's how this works: the parents of an LGBT teen calls upon a cousin to help "straighten" the errant boy or girl. The cousin turns rapist and the parents, for some reason, believe that this will "cure" the victim's homosexuality. However, in most cases, all that happens is that the traumatised teenager turns his or her back on the family for good.

I read Rajendran for the first time less than a year ago, in the cutesy graphic novel Nirmala and NormalaThe Lesson is a far cry from the affectionate satire of that book and this only goes on to show the versatility of its author. For the sake of our future, I hope to see The Lesson on college curricula across the country.

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