Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Review & Reflections: Vaasanthi's "Birthright"

I spent Sunday evening reading Vasantha Surya's translation of Vaasanthi's Tamil novel, Kadaisee Varai. Titled Birthright in English, the novel is about female foeticide. I wanted to read this book but didn't know what to expect--a tirade? a Tamil soap (unlikely but..)? a weepy rant?

I did not expect Dr. Mano, Vaasanthi's complex protagonist, an obstetrician-gyanaecologist practising in a village in Salem district. I did not expect a protagonist who performs scans and abortions for the desperate women who flock her clinic. Vaasanthi's protagonist is not even a conservative product of patriarchal society who believes that male children are inherently more desirable. It's her completely matter-of-fact approach to the scanning and abortions that is most shocking. Chilling, even.

So you willingly follow Vaasanthi on the journey through Mano's psyche.

Never feeling wanted or adequate just because she was a daughter--and not just that, an only child who was a daughter--Dr. Mano expresses her anger and disappoinment with the world in her own way. Knowing full well that her willingness to scan and abort female foetuses is against the law, she calmly acquiesces when desperate village women beg for her help. Just as calmly as they face the prospect of abortion. There's a very sad, shocking and heartbreaking exchange between her and her sociologist (and feminist) friend visiting from Delhi as they look at a female foetus on her scan screen.
"'Do you still have the heart to do it, after you've seen this?' she said softly, in an awed voice. Smiling a little, my eyes still on the screen, I told her, 'You wouldn't understand how merciful a creature I really am.'... Arguing about this thing with a person who doesn't have the slightest idea what it is to breathe the air in these parts is especially meaningless." (page 10-11)
Later in the novel, Dr. Mano reflects:
"Women asked me to destroy the females in their wombs, pleading, "There's no other way for me!" Our epics and legends say that a woman who wants to achieve anything at all must renounce not only sexual desire, but every sign of femaleness." And as Dr. Mano remembers Auvaiyaar, Karaikkaal Ammaiyaar, Kannagi and Andal, heroines from Tamil epic and mythic ages, she compares herself and Raasamma, their housekeeper, to them, thinking, "Our outlets for the sacrificial impulse were different, that was all. The TV screen for her, the scan screen for me." (page 49)
Vaasanthi's skill as a writer is that she is able to make us feel compassion for this person who is educated, privileged and still does this thing that is morally reprehensible, not to say criminal. Moreover, she lets you into the pain of every woman who comes to Dr. Mano for an abortion, sometimes after trying more rustic methods first.

And when Dr. Mano "speaks" these words, they speak to something inside many, many women--including me.
"This loneliness that's been haunting me since my birth--I'm the only one who knows what that is like. That's why it has never been enough for me to be just myself, I need a larger frame." (page 22)
The push to do more, do more, do more, because what you are is not enough becomes a theme in many lives. It's the contemporary, maybe feminist, equivalent of dowry--a way of compensating for who you accidentally and inadequately are--a woman.

I can only hope that generations of girls after Dr. Mano and me can never relate to these words. I can only hope that the idea that they're "only" girls or that they "can never be men" is so extinct that when they chance upon this blogpost, they want to discuss it in class as a historical curiosity.

Read this book. It's very sad but very worthwhile and if you can read it in Tamil, I am sure it will be even more powerful.

Vaasanthi, Birthright, translated by Vasantha Surya, Zubaan, New Delhi, 2004. 

Related post: And what if their baby could choose?

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