Devika Karnad: ‘Lakshmi Kannan’s Going Home’
Female Agency, ‘Home’ and ‘Nation’ in Globalised India: Lakshmi Kannan’s Going Home
Lakshmi Kannan’s Going Home is a novella that grapples with women’s conflicting relationship with legal as well as patriarchal discourses. It primarily concerns itself with the notion of female juridical agency, while also underlining its relationship with other forms of agency that women resort to in grappling with their subjugation. The novella was published in 1986 in Tamil as Aathukku Pogamum, almost four decades after modern law concerning women’s right to inheritance had been introduced by the Hindu Succession Act. This paper analyses Kannan’s complex representation of female agency in varied modern contexts resulting from rapid shifts in societal structures, and the novel’s engagement with the quintessential tradition v/s modernity debate.
Kannan’s novel exposes the illusory nature of feminist ‘liberation’ by examining the controversial intersections of legal and patriarchal discourse and their impact upon female agency, through its depiction of women who are denied their inheritance and embark upon a quest for their ‘home’ and identity. The narrative allows an engagement with the dichotomous representation of the figure of the Indian woman through its multigenerational canvas, as well as its placing of the protagonist Gayatri within various female subject positions as granddaughter, daughter, wife, mother and mother-in-law. Through such subjectification of female characters in their specific situations within the patriarchal familial edifice, the text foregrounds “[f]amily ideologies, customary practices, gender arrangements, and codes of conduct” which become determining factors in women’s legal decisions (Agnes and Ghosh 2012: xxiv).
That women’s relationship with the inheritance laws is symptomatic of the dominant power structures and cultural formations within society, is evidenced in Srimati Basu’s statement that ‘attitudes to inheritance may be considered a diagnostic of cultural norms’ (274). It thus becomes impossible to discuss juridical injustice without the implication of the concerned women and their exercise of agency. Significantly, Kannan chooses not to allow her characters to ‘fight’ for these rights in a rebellious fashion. An atmosphere of relative passivity pervades the text, as the protagonist Gayatri, her mother Meenakshi and her friend Rama lament their continued oppression within society even in their apparently ‘modern’ setting, but do not undertake radical measures to bring about a change. Agency here is thus not portrayed in the form of “gestures of defiance and subversion”, but as a more nuanced and complex system of negotiation that Basu underlines in stating that “Examining refusals of property shows not a passive acceptance of cultural prescriptions but rather the negotiation of material, social and emotional needs, a complex mix of consternation, affections and optimized survival strategies” (Tharu and Lalita, “An Introduction” 35; Basu 273).
Agency for a woman in the juridical sphere is therefore not defined simply in the act of wresting one’s property from a patriarchal hold, but in the very struggle to determine whether or not she should demand what is her due. It is this negotiation that becomes evident in the narrative, as Gayatri and her mother Meenakshi find themselves trapped in a “violent shuttling…between tradition and modernization” (Spivak 102). The mother-daughter pair become representative of the possibility of a simplistic binary in their respective functions within the novel. Gayatri, a progressive working woman living in urban Delhi, is characterized by bitter resentment towards the system that prevented her from inheriting her maternal grandfather’s property, Retreat. Her restlessness is juxtaposed with her mother’s calm acquiescence to patriarchal hegemony, and it is in this mother figure that Kannan truly embeds an argument against a simplistic understanding of juridical agency.
Meenakshi’s introduction to the reader is through a letter to her daughter, which is sprinkled with references to her passivity. In speaking of their lost inheritance, she placates her daughter stating, “This is the way it has been for generations now” and encourages her to conform (Kannan 25). She subscribes to the established normativity of discourse in the Foucauldian sense, as becomes evident when she states “what the community says, we cannot change”, since “[t]he whole domain of the nonconforming is punishable” within a disciplinary mode of power (Kannan 25; The Foucault Reader 194). Meenakshi specifically disavows the capacity of legal redressal of the issue, believing it to be “a fruitless exercise, a post-mortem” (Kannan 26). Instead, she underlines “two very old schools of thought, Mitakshara and Dayabhaga” which continue to dictate social conduct and hierarchies (26).
For Gayatri, her mother’s position on the matter of inheritance is necessarily passive. She fails to recognize the agential complexity of Meenakshi’s position. Instead, she betrays her one-dimensional perspective in admiring “the way [Meenakshi is] content with what is given, the way [she] always accept[s] [her] lot with grace, with never a complaint” (Kannan 28). She thus perceives her mother as imbricated within patriarchal discourse, placed in almost a binary opposition against herself and her generation. This is in keeping with the common belief that Basu elucidates upon- “Women’s rights to property are often viewed as being a ‘modern’ and feminist demand, appearing proportionate to education and high social class” (281). Gayatri thus places herself and her mother upon opposite ends of a spectrum that is embedded in the simplistic tradition/modernity debate.
Yet, Kannan’s portrayal of Gayatri’s rudimentary and dichotomous perception is deliberate, in that it makes obvious the fallacies of a simplistic understanding of agency. Gayatri’s declaration of Meenakshi’s passivity is contradicted by various statements of the mother figure itself, which rupture its essentialism. Meenakshi recognises firstly the position she is placed in, telling her daughter, “I may strike you as a spineless woman, who accepts injustice passively. But I did try to redeem the situation” (Kannan 26). She complicates it by narrating the choices placed before her, namely “to sue my mother, and fight out the case in court” or “to grin and bear it” (26). In a strong display of agency, she then makes a choice, refusing to accept the former path of resolution by stating firmly, “that I will not do. It will disrupt the entire family and ruin everybody’s peace” (26). Meenakshi’s concern for her relationship with her natal family portrays the “tension between the fairness represented in enforceable legal equity and the invaluable family ties that allegedly rise above legality” (Basu 275).
In her essay, Basu records women’s active refusal of property rights in acts such as signing away one’s share to one’s brother in order to maintain strong emotional ties with the natal family, which would be refused to them if they claim their inheritance. The women “contribute passively by ‘not taking’” (Basu 288). Agency thus becomes embedded even in the act of refusal. This choice that Meenakshi and the women represented in Basu’s essay make, of preserving the peace, itself can be understood as resistance to the patriarchal diktat of a woman’s necessary rupture from her natal family post-marriage, thus “contesting the power relations that make them so vulnerable when they marry and go away” (Raheja, qtd. in Basu 285). Through her representation of Meenakshi, Kannan thus elicits in the reader a strong recognition that, in the matter of inheritance, “what [appear] to be a jumble of deluded attitudes from women towards property [are] often complex attempts at optimizing material survival and bridging emotional alienation within a system that offered them limited agency and subjectivity” (Basu 304)
Ultimately, the repercussions of the inanimate power of the law upon the individual woman are privatised by Kannan in the notion of ‘home’. It is the quest for the perfect home, and the woman’s role in the formation of this utopia, that is central to the narrative. For Gayatri, ‘home’ is represented in the elusive Retreat, while her house in Delhi, where she lives with her husband and son, becomes “a mouse-trap” that strips its inhabitants of their individuality (Kannan 16). Within this sense of ‘unheimlich’ or ‘unhoming’ that the family experiences, Gayatri’s husband Shankar expresses his love in a poignant metaphor, telling his wife “I feel like a weary sea-farer, who has finally found an ashram in which to rest. This skin … so soft, and this dear body … the smell of you[r] hair…It feels like I’ve come home” (18). Gayatri’s denunciation of his rhetoric and such objectification of her female body present a feminist protest against women becoming essentialised into embodiments of ‘home’. However, due to her dichotomised perspective, she does not extend the same benefit of subjectification to her mother.
Meenakshi, in Gayatri’s estimation, is simply an extension of her Thatha (grandfather), and is characterised by her “talent and imagination to generate a sense of freshness and well-being” which “[s]he can create…within the simple and modestly laid-out, rented house in Mysore” (28). She is thus reduced to a passive home-body, who Gayatri presents as having “found fulfilment within the hundred odd details that the small house demanded” (53). And yet, Kannan complicates the mother’s position in the regret expressed when she demands, “Don’t I know how restful my father’s house was?”, even as she convinces Gayatri to end her protest against her denied inheritance. Both mother and daughter thus become reduced to representations of ‘home’, and yet their individuality is expressed in the fact that they find their own sense of homeliness embedded in the inheritance that they have been denied.
While women’s embodiment of the home is deconstructed in this manner, Kannan also recalibrates the home as a masculine, rather than feminine, space. Within patriarchal discourse, this space is incomplete without the physical embodiment of patriarchy in the form of the husband. It is this necessity of the male presence in the formulation of ‘home’ which leads a house guest, Mrs. Kulkarni, to lament at her daughter’s unmarried state- “our place will feel like a home only when I get a son-in-law” (87). For the married women themselves, who function within this masculine space, home thus becomes a space of obligation rather than of warmth or tranquillity. Gayatri’s friend Rama captures this ‘unhomed’ state of women in asserting, “I return home to do my duties as a mother to my children” (95). Rama, as a working woman and author, thus finds herself still embedded within hegemonic patriarchy and essentially reduced to her roles as mother and wife.
In historicising the representation of the Indian woman, Radha Kumar comments upon the significance of the figure of the working woman, in that it “represented…a rejection of the wife-mother-power image, replacing it with the image of the economically independent woman” (2). Kannan presents a resistance to the rhetoric of the working woman’s ‘freedom’ achieved through her movement from the private to the public sphere, since here, the movement of the ‘modern’ woman into the public sphere does not offer liberation, but instead exacerbates her oppression. Instead of revelling in the liberatory spirit, Gayatri desperately wishes to quit her job and live as a housewife, thus ironically yearning to re-enter the domestic sphere. And instead of being suppressed within the home, she is instead pressured into the public sphere, having to work in order to help support the family.
The image of the ‘working superwoman’ thus proves illusory, characterized by untired, uncomplaining rotations of drudgery at home as well as at work. In the professional space, it is not ambition or success that drives the employees, but “the apprehension that if we did not manage well enough, if our grip on the work loosened even a little bit, the job would slip through our fingers” (Kannan 92). Additionally, the gendered nature of capitalist discourse is addressed in underlining women’s sexual exploitation in the workplace. Once again, Kannan does not essentialise the female subject into victimhood, instead portraying the element of sexual agency exercised by “plenty of women in the office who would vie with each other to keep [the Vice-President] happy on his own terms, impelled by the greed to advance themselves” (112). This agency resists the formation of the passive woman subject who is the recipient and object of a male sexual desire. And yet, the resistance of these women against their perceived passivity is circumscribed within the ‘power field’ and their embeddedness within patriarchal discourse dictates their ‘consent’, as in Kiran’s case where she returns to work even after sexual harassment by the Vice-President because her husband expected her to make ‘compromises’ with her boss. These instances of ambivalence in defining sexual agency underline that, as Kumkum Sangari states, “[t]he consensual, contractual elements [of patriarchy] combine agential power with subjection for women and produce a mixture of consent and resentment” (869).
As a result of this rupture of essentialist definitions of agency, and of the public and the private, Gayatri’s strongest protests through the narrative are not against redundant and oppressive historic forms of ritual or the denial of her rights by a patriarchal society, but of her urban life in Delhi which she seeks to escape. Escape from the modern dystopia arrives, ironically, in the form of nostalgia. The very past and ‘patriarchal imprisonment’ from which the discourse of urban feminism demands a rupture, thus becomes the source of solace, and Retreat symbolizes a physical manifestation of this yearning for Gayatri. Thus, it is not a ‘modern’, ‘liberal’ or ‘feminist’ assertion of her rights that leads Gayatri to protest against the injustice of being denied her inheritance, but an ironic desire to recede into the past, to recapture the symphony of “the peaceful early morning sounds of a quiet town” in the “recurrent rhythm of the pestle pounding…the large stone mortar” or the women’s “graceful rural ballad” as they work, that has since been overwritten by the “[h]arsh, discordant sounds” of “early morning traffic” or “the grating jangle of rickety elevators” which constitute urban reality (Kannan 14-15).
The relationship between Gayatri and this desired past is subtly portrayed by Kannan. Gayatri specifically aligns her agential capacities to attempt a reneging of this past through her indulgence in acts that she associates with ‘tradition’, by means of which she hopes to gain a stable sense of self and a cultural identity. One such example is the ritual of oiling. It is first referred to in Meenakshi’s letter to Gayatri, where the mother reminds her “to massage [her] hair and body with oil every Friday before [her] bath” (28). This statement elicits a ‘modern’ response from Gayatri at the outset, as she derides her mother’s naiveté, stating that, “For working women like me, an ‘oil-massage-bath’ on a so called ‘good’ day like Friday, has become a self-indulgence, far removed from our lives” (28-29). She represents these rituals as extravagant and dated. However, the act of oiling itself, which she undertakes later in the narrative, acts as a mode of transportation into this desired past. As she massages her head, Gayatri begins to sing “a terribly old song faded over the years, grown stale”, a devotional song called “Krishna ni Begane Baro” that is associated with Kannadiga culture (36).
This nostalgia that Gayatri draws from in order to cope with her realities can be faulted, however, for its static nature. As Srimati Basu argues, “notions about kinship and gender fundamentally undergird the intergenerational transfer of wealth…” (273). As a result, Gayatri’s nostalgia extends not only to the house Retreat, but to the people who inhabited it, namely Thatha (grandfather), Patti (grandmother), Meenakshi, and the domestic Muniyamma who are rendered static and unidimensional. Episodes populated by these characters puncture Gayatri’s reality periodically. Of these figures, the most important one that stands also as a metonym for Retreat itself is Thatha, the patriarch who wielded complete authority over the property that is now denied to her. The metonymic association created between the inheritance and Thatha’s love for her lead to his memory being repeatedly evoked in reconstructing the ideal past in which Retreat was within her grasp. She thus describes Retreat as “a house that cradles the spirit of my grandfather” (50).
The flatness of Gayatri’s rendering of this revered figure, however, is evident in the complete elimination of any reference to Thatha’s complicity with the patriarchal discourse that disinherits Meenakshi and Gayatri. The affection he bestows upon his granddaughter is contradicted by his decision to adhere to the quaint practices of Mitakshara in his will, thus effectively unhoming his daughter and granddaughter (26). Gayatri, however, does not engage with this contradiction, instead choosing to direct her strong hatred towards the inheritors, her uncle and aunt whom she describes as “[a] capricious man with a deceptive sense of humour, a veneer under which lurks a sly, worldly-wise craftiness… [a]nd his blood-sucking wife Vanaja, lusting after his money” (27). This projection can be understood as a drive towards denial, to “scapegoat” the strangers so as to preserve her memories of her grandfather as the loving patriarch, thus “denying the collusion of [her] own relatives in erasing [her] natal connections” (Basu 287).
Significantly, Thatha himself is not a ubiquitous presence in Gayatri’s childhood and her development. It is instead female figures like the domestic Muniyamma who channel his authority to become consensual agents of patriarchy, engaged in the formulation of Gayatri as the normative subject, ‘the feminine woman’. Muniyamma adheres rigidly to ritual, insisting that “a girl must have an oil bath on Friday” and going on to engage the young Gayatri in an elaborate ritual of an oil massage followed by a bath with Bengal gram flour and the drying of the hair on a “Burma oven” scented with frankincense crystals (Kannan 29-31). ‘Tradition’ is epitomised in this figure who serves as the functionary of normative feminine behaviour, as she chides Gayatri, “A girl-child scraping her body like this! Che che!... Climbing trees, rolling in mud, for shame!” (29-30). She thus produces Gayatri within a discourse of femininity so that the girl can no longer recognise herself- “Gayatri marvelled, at her own body, her hair. Is this me? she wondered” (31). The reminiscence of Munniyama’s stringent rules, now frozen in time and space, is also an important element of Gayatri’s search for her identity and home. She thus laments, “The frankincense has gone up in smoke. The fragrant fumes of another, more gracious time, has curled around and wrapped up time. Vanished” (31).
This yearning and freezing of the past, of both Retreat and the family which inhabited it, can be metonymically understood as a representation of the nostalgia embedded within the collective Indian consciousness for a precolonial India. In his essay on ‘National Culture’, Frantz Fanon theorizes such a desire as being “directed by the secret hope of discovering beyond the misery of today, beyond self-contempt, resignation, and abjuration, some very beautiful and splendid era whose existence rehabilitates us both in regard to ourselves and in regard to others” (485). It is significant that the singular instance of historical contextualisation in the narrative is Indira Gandhi’s assassination and the consequent anti-Sikh riots, an event that is understood as the culmination of “the widespread disaffection” caused by the rupturing of the optimistic utopian ideals which characterised the nascent years of post-independent India (Tharu and Lalita, “The Twentieth Century” 47).
Such a reading of the text is compounded in the recurring images of ‘the garden’ and ‘mud’ or earth that are interspersed through the narrative. The novel significantly begins with Gayatri playing in the mud as a child. The homelessness that the characters are plagued by is offered a resolution by Rama in stating, “This soil here, the earth below our feet, that’s our floor. And the sky above, that’s our roof” (Kannan 44). Such rhetoric expresses a sense of rootedness that is associated with the soil of the nation rather than its materialistic connotation of a four-walled house. The importance of this rhetoric is emphasized by Gayatri’s belief that if Rajni, who committed suicide to escape her oppression under patriarchy, “had not lived up there on the seventh floor…if only [she] had lived on the ground floor, with the soles of [her] feet touching the good earth, nature would have sustained [her]” (45). Her frustration with the cramped nature of urban living is also linked to this sense of a lost connection with the earth. The D.D.A. flat in Delhi “can positively agitate the nerves” primarily because “[t]here will be no greenery around, no cool earth under your feet” (55-56).
It is this greenery that Gayatri valorises in her constructed memories of Retreat as well as her parents’ home in Mysore. She paints the “small house on the ground floor with a neat garden around it, tenderly cared for by [her] father” (52). The space as well as the idyllic relationship between her parents hints at an Edenic existence outside the throes of suffering that characterise modern living. During her visit to Retreat, Gayatri is inundated by memories as she stands before it, after which she mourns that “[a] beautiful chapter had come to an end”, representing thus a Fall from Eden, a movement from the prelapsarian world which has been lost in the period post-colonisation, post-modernisation, and post-globalisation (54).
The narrative’s final progression presents Kannan’s concluding argument for the possibility of a broader canvas of women’s agential capacities, as Gayatri’s own position is subtly realigned through a shift in the dominant epistemes. The incongruities resulting from multiple engagements with the various discourses within which she is implicated plainly reveal Gayatri’s ‘violent shuttling’ between traditional and modern affiliations, as also between discourses of feminism and patriarchy. Notions of agency and consent are thus revealed by Kannan to “rest on a series of factors ranging from wide social consensualities, economic dependence, social pressures congealed into structural necessities or dispersed as moral systems, the pull of affective relationships and the perceived legitimacy of the offer to protect women from the patriarchal violence of other individuals or groups” (Sangari 869).
It is in arranging her son Arvind’s marriage to Girija that Gayatri first betrays such contradictions. During their visit to Girija’s home to discuss the couple’s prospects, Gayatri condemns Girija’s mother for her casual attitude - “Had she no culture or grace, she a mother negotiating a daughter’s marriage?” (125). She then goes on to critique the newly formed class of Indians who, “in the name of modernity,…discard their own indigenous culture in a great hurry, and in the process shed the graces of a culture that has conditioned us for centuries” (125). These statements betray Gayatri’s allegiance to patriarchal and nationalistic ideologies. In fact, in their negotiations for Arvind’s marriage, it is Gayatri and Shankar who come across as ‘traditional’ in their thwarting of the young couple’s dreams of marriage, while Girija’s parents appear ‘modern’ in their apparent interest in their child’s desires. A shift in discourses thus leads to Gayatri being produced as the same feared ‘mother-in-law’ figure that Gayatri criticised earlier in the text.
As it becomes evident that Girija and her parents are attempting a hasty marriage to Arvind in order to secure her future, the narrative becomes circuitous in the reassertion of an ideology where the woman does not work, instead remaining cocooned within the private sphere and dependent upon her husband. Here, however, this ‘modern’ woman is characterised not by passivity but her singular decision not to study or work, which becomes inscribed with agential capacity. In fact, Girija’s parents justify her perceived ‘laziness’ by evoking her ‘delicate upbringing’, and are indignant about the necessity of her working.
In Gayatri’s discourse of femininity with its surcharge of activity, Girija’s “listless ennui” and “slothful lethargy” become contentious (133). She is not part of the norm and therefore is under suspicion of being “an aberration of nature, a girl born with a serious defect” (133). Gayatri’s interpellation within the normative feminist discourse that insists upon the woman’s engagement with the public sphere thus becomes evident when the notion of “get[ting] married and settl[ing] down” is met with the exclamation, “In this decade!” (128). The new generation therefore becomes perceived as a collation of “unfeeling, insensate beings who…[are] trying to take the easy way out”, an eerie echo of the apathy and ignorance that Gayatri earlier accused her mother’s generation of embodying (136).
However, Gayatri’s discourse of feminism now becomes de-centred and her liminality is emphasized when she is in danger of being ejected from her own house by the younger couple. Thus, the shifting discourses relegate Gayatri and Shankar to the peripheries while Arvind and Girija gain dominance. Gayatri’s adoption of Muniyamma’s queer habit of soliloquizing becomes another circuitous trope in the narrative, as she recognizes her agedness and Otherness within these newly formulated discourses. The final instance of this motif is also the moment of resolution of the quest for home which is Gayatri’s central preoccupation, when her grandson Siddharth builds a dream plastic home for her in replication of her own toy home-building within which her Thatha sat, as she assumes the position of the central figure within the young child’s quest for home.
Ultimately, the various representations of ‘home’ and homelessness in Going Home serve as metonyms for social structures formed post-Independence, all inscribed within patriarchal hierarchies in which women are either denied a sense of ‘home’ or dependent upon men for it. Various forms of agency then become modes of negotiation for the women as they attempt to formulate a space of their own that can become ‘home’. Lakshmi Kannan thus presents the complex intertwining of various discursive modes that together produce a woman’s position in urban Indian society, such that she defies any conventional understanding of her agential capacity.
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