Reflections on Social and Moral Imbalances in Selected Indian English Novels

Indian English literature has gone through various phases in thematic concerns in the last hundred years. Before partition, Indian English novelists such as Mulk Raj Anand, Raja Rao, R. K. Narayan, laid more emphasis on patriotism and nationalism as a primary concern but their concern for freedom of man from the social malpractices and maintenance of human dignity in the conservative outlook and prevalence of inhuman and discriminatory customs also remained under focus. Indian social set up too came for critical evaluation because of it blind following of many outdated and irrelevant set patterns of moral and social behavior of life. Such a system left a very limited breathing space and sphere for people to think fresh and achieve social and moral equanimity with freedom. In that kind of a scenario, the chances of liberation and free thinking seem minimal. And man feels helpless before such caste based and economic yardsticks of social and religious hierarchy.

Man is a very enigmatic creation of nature on earth. Knowing fully well that man is mortal; he has been busy in amassing maximum wealth and power. Not only busy in usurping maximum wealth but he ironically attempts to expand in such a way that he secures for his future generations. Such an attitude which descends from the philosophy of supremacy of the domineering and their companions remained central factor which never lets the common people a breathing space to remain peaceful and easy going. Because of this, the human history has undergone multitude of wars and conflicts of ideas. And civilizations of the world kept changing through various phases of historical periods. These attitudes were the grounded reasons for the creation of clash of cultures leading to the emergence of multiple castes and class based discriminatory distinctions. This human set up will never reach a stage where one can say all are equal, selfless, prosperous, peaceful, civilized and humane.

Mulk Raj Anand was the first novelist who spoke against the caste based exploitation of the poor and the underprivileged people. Such a system continued for centuries and took a form of economic exploitation by the haves of the have-nots. Untouchable of Mulk Raj Anand is the finest example of suppression and exploitation of human freedom under the garb of harsh frozen idealism which deplores the victimized human psyche.

Anand shapes his anger against the prevailing social rules which blatantly undermine the human dignity. A young boy Bakha is confused to understand the double standards of the society. He wants to retaliate against such which norms which make him feel less than an animal. But his father Lakha who has acclimatized to the prevailing harshness of the society wants his son to follow his example of submission to the existing system. Lakha’s words forewarn as well as make him realize the reality of life, “We cannot do that. They are our superiors. One word of theirs is sufficient against all that we might say before the police. They are our masters. We must respect them and do as they tell us. Some of them are kind.”1 Mahatma Gandhi’s vision of future India after independence makes him hopeful of better life in the coming years.

Kamala Markandaya’s A Nectar in a Sieve reveals the miserable plight of women in Indian social set up in which women are always at the receiving end. Rukmani, wife of a poor farmer, does her best to maintain her domestic harmony in spite of her husband’s moral and economic degeneration. Her daughter Era is forced to prostitution because of the callous and difficult circumstances created by industrialization and male dominated society. Basing her novel on the theme of ‘east-west cultural encounter’, Kamala Markandaya shows that people of the east seek spiritual and economic equanimity through sacrifice at physical and mental level. In her novel, Possession, she again brings out the exploitation of the poor by the established. Rich people think that they have the capacity to buy the talent of Indians. But in this novel, Markandaya brings out the theme of colonialism. She shows the futile efforts of an English lady who represents the imperialist representative woman who hold the opinion of possessing the Indian spirit. But her efforts receive a big blow when her efforts come to naught in the end.

arundhatistory_647_100316054702Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things raises the conflicting dimensions between individual dreams and social and moral restraints. It also underlines the efforts of persons who want change in the age old taboos and manmade moral and social laws. How far these laws of restricting human freedom and aspirations are justified is another question to which the novelist endeavors to probe into? She tries to find out the answers of fundamental questions which emanate from man-made social laws. Her effort of writing the novel is to reveal the genesis of human struggle which “…. Really began in the days when the love laws were made. The laws that lay down who should be loved, and how. And how much”.2

Roy appears struggling in duality of optimism as well as pessimism at the same time. Her narrative is a credible and critical commentary on the uneven social set up where she doesn’t bring any concrete and viable remedies to the target section bundled in the vicious circle of conformity with smoldering but upcoming agitation. But at the same time, she is encouraged to find that persons like Ammu, Mammachi, Rahel and Velutha making valiant attempts to break the established social and moral bondage and illogical and oppressive laws. In pursuit of the fulfillment of their dreams, they overlook the repercussions of their non-conformist attitude. But Roy’s pessimism seems breaking her nerves when she observes that hypocrites, economically and politically strong persons still are the usurpers of power who overwhelm the administration and police mechanism and cleverly use them to their vested interests. Her dismal conclusions give pains to the readers when she opines that established rules and social taboos are so strongly established that the exploited remain exploited and victims remain victims in spite of drastic changes in legal remedial system even after the introduction of Indian constitution.

It is basic human feature that every sensitive person runs after respect and dignity as per his status and achievements. In The God of Small Things, there are some miserable characters who struggle in getting due regard and proper recognition. They may be somewhat responsible for their plight and sufferings but more than that are the social and moral systems which make them too vulnerable and fragile to be as victims rather than culprits. Innocence and good nature act against their decisions and become the cause of their bad luck. Ammu, daughter of Scientist Pappachi and an artist and versatile business lady Mammachi, is a person of strong will power. Her efforts of breaking the social and moral laws to make her life better fail miserably as she couldn’t visualize the inherent strength of patriarchal and discriminatory social structure of Indian society.

Feminist issues vehemently attract opinions of legal and human right experts and activists. Despite the enforcement of laws and constitutional provisions, cases of domestic violence, psychological tortures and moral taboos, very thin allowances are seen being made toward the suffering lot. The questions taunt the implementation at many levels. Seema Jain avers, “…it reveals how a patriarchal and phallocentric system, women having no locus standi are oppressed, marginalized and made to suffer(e.g. Ammu, Ammu’s mother and Rahel). Sometimes, they tend to derogate their own sex and co-operate in their own subordination (e.g. Ammu’s mother and Baby Kochamma) because of their having unquestioningly and unconsciously, internalized values of the patriarchal system (e.g. Mammachi, Ammu and wives of Kathakali men).3

Many women like Ammu are stuck in social and moral dilemmas as they can’s find immediate solutions to their problems as they alone have fend for themselves. Her faithfulness prevailed upon her to decline the nasty and sinful idea in spite of the dangerous consequences of her defiance. She had thought that the decision would be taken as a valiant step but contrary to her expectations, nobody, either in the house or in the society, tried to probe into the matter. None appreciated her courage and extended any support to make her morally strong. Rather, her own father expressed his doubt over the version given by her daughter. Her father’s faith remained intact shattered Ammu. Pappachi continued his belief that all English men were of very high moral character, “Pappachi would not believe her story- not because he thought well of her husband, but simply because he didn’t believe that an Englishman, any Englishman, would covet another man’s wife” (p.42). Had Ammu succumbed to the desires of her husband, perhaps she could have continued as publically respected wife and have forestall the arrival of many of her social and economic problems. How ironical does it look that a divorcee lives (in spite of her chastity) with a moral and social stigma. On the other hand a morally deprived lady receives public respect with her hidden corrupt reality. Ironically, Baby Kochamma did her best to win over her lover Father Mulligan; a young Irish monk. As nobody could decipher her moral corruption and degradation, she remained very sober and decent public figure in the house and society. About Baby Kochamma’s affair with Mulligan, Roy writes about the intensity of infatuation for each other in spite of its being unconsummated. The priest was infatuated by her, “trembling kissable mouth and blazing, coal-black eyes” (p.23), and she feels enslaved by the thrilling promise in his, “effulgent emerald eyes” (p.24). Unfortunately, such expressions are not the luxuries of the unprivileged and the prohibited persons like Ammu and Velutha.

Mammachi is the other miserable person who fails to achieve moral and economic equanimity despite her dominant position in the house and her business inclination and enterprising talent. Throughout her married life she did not attract desired place in the family from her family members particularly from Pappachi and Chacko. Continued mal treatment at the hand of her husband did not bother her sensitivity. She did so as she was fully aware of her lot as it was a common feature of a helpless Indian wife. In spite of merciless physical humiliation, she remained calm as is done by typical Indian wife. The consequences become more tragic when such scenes are witnessed by children. In The God of Small Things, actions of such parents put very negative impacts on Ammu( when as child) who had been witness to such seem involved between her father Papaachi and mother Mammachi, “As a child…… Ammu had learnt very quickly to disregard the Father Bear beat Mother Bear stories she was given to read. In her version, Father Bear beat Mother Bear with brass vases. Mother Bear suffered those beatings with mute resignations” (p.180). Roy presents a very strange behavior of Indian husbands who are made of dual personality having – public as well as private faces.

Pappachi and K.N.M. Pillai too have such nasty duplicity in this regard. Sri Benaan Johm Ipe or Pappachi, who had been Joint Director, Entomology at Pusa Institute, Delhi, posed very enchanting, somber and civilized facets of his personality to all visitors. He was lavish in donating money to orphanages and clinics of physically deprived people. He always did his best to prop up his public image as a cultured, philanthropic and man of ethics. Seema Jain truly observes Mammachi, “…when at home with his wife and children, he would become a monstrous bully and beat them in the same inhuman and callous manner as the illiterate and unsophisticated Kathakali men beat their wives. Ammu would spend cold winter nights in the garden of her Delhi house because Pappachi would beat her and Mammachi (Soshamma) and turn them out of their home”4. Similar attitude is seen in the behavior of K.N.M Pillai, a self-styled champion of human rights and human dignity. Being a political leader of Communist Party of the town, he instructs the others to respect human dignity and maintain equality amongst all human being. But contrary to his sermons, the picture of his own house in dignity of women is quite contrary to his public propaganda. He treats his wife shabbily as untouchables are treated.

Arundhati is very sarcastic in her portrayal of high caste Syrian Christian families of South India. She shows the plight of women whose life is no way better than that of untouchables at the grass root level of Kerala. As high caste women suffer at the hands of physically and economically powerful counterparts- their father, brother and husband, the untouchables undergo the same suffocation and oppression under the garb of social norms and caste based hierarchy. Similar offence committed by two males coming from two different communities does not get similar punishment as it is interpreted differently from the perspective of caste based scales. The caste and economic yardsticks are taken into consideration while rewarding and punishing criminal offences. When Chacko’s physical intimacy and exploitation of the low caste women working in the ‘Paradise Pickles’ is brought in the notice of Mammachi , she rubbishes it putting lame excuses but Ammu’s secret affair with Velutha is taken as a bombshell shaking the roots of the ‘Ayemenem House’. Mammachi cannot tolerate the physical intimacy of her daughter with foul and dirty untouchable, “Then she shuddered as her schoolgirls shudder. That was when she said: How could she stand the smell? Haven’t you noticed? They have a particular smell, these Paravans” (p.257). She spits on his face and issues him a threat of elimination, “Out! She had screamed, eventually. ‘If I find you on my property tomorrow I’ll have you castrated like a pariah dog that you are! I’ll have you killed” (p.284).

NjEyNzVhYTBiNyMvSFZ4QXZwWGR1VmtkdFZGcS1NWGdKN0RFUGxjPS8xMXgxMToxOTM3eDEyMjYvODAweDQ1MC9maWx0ZXJzOmZvcm1hdChqcGVnKTpxdWFsaXR5KDgwKS9odHRwczovL3MzLmFtYXpvbmF3cy5jb20vcG9saWN5bWljLWltYWdlcyThe untouchable Velutha, like Ammu and Mammachi, is another victimized character who too is born to suffer. In spite of his intelligence, good behavior, mechanical acumen and political linkages, he meets the tragic end. Velutha’s dilemma of life is quite similar to Ammu’s predicament as the former is marginalized due to his caste and economic class whereas the latter is in misery because of her gender. Roy describes him as “The God of Loss. The God of Small Things” (p30). He is an angry young man who intends to break the old shackles of social taboos of various kinds. To make his struggle strong against the caste riddled system, he dares to join Marxism and becomes a regular member of the communist party. Ammu’s brave act of falling in love and Velutha’s active involvement in Communist party’s road procession are part of the movements of Feminism and Marxism which focus on cultural and economic transformation aiming to stop the exploitation of the poor and helpless who are the marginalized since centuries. But unfortunately, Velutha and Ammu are betrayed by their own confidants – Velutha by K. N. M. Pillai, his father Vellya Pappen and Estha and Rahel whereas Ammu by mother Mammachi, Baby Kochamma and her brother Chacko. In fact, Roy tries to prove that in the modern callous world, other than relations and affiliations, economic and personal interests too overwhelm human actions and decisions.

Notes and References

  • Mulk Raj Anand, Untouchable, 1935; rpt. (New Delhi: Orient Paperbacks, 1970), p.109.
  • Arundhati Roy, The God of Small Things: India Ink: 1997, p.33. All other textual references have been cited from this edition and page nos. has been given in brackets.
  • Seema Jain, Arundhati’s The God of Small Things: A Feminist Perspective, English Journal, ed. N. K. Neb Jalandhar :Pragati Educational Council , Vol.6 No.1, p.44.
  • Seema Jain, Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things: A Feminist Perspective, English Journal, ed. N. K. Neb , p.4


Categories: Dalit Literature, Indian Writing in English, Literary Criticism, Literary Theory, Literature, Research Papers

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  1. Marginalization and The Indian English Literature – Literary Theory and Criticism Notes

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