Woman: In the Novels of Indian English Women Novelists

“Woman must be a bridge and a synthesizer. She shouldn’t allow  herself to be swept off her feet by superificial trends nor  yet  be chained  to the familiar. She must  ensure the continuity  which  strengthens  roots  and  simultaneously engineer  change  and  growth  to  keep  society  dynamic, abreast of knowledge , sensitive to fast-moving events. The solution  lies  neither  in  fighting  for  equal  position  nor denying it,  neither  in retreat  into  the  home  nor escape from it.”  - Indira Gandhi (Eternal India)
From time immemorial, Indian Woman, the embodiment of love and affection, hope and patience, has been showing their worth in each and every discipline of knowledge. Gauri and Ansuya in scriptures, Sita and Rani Durgavati, Razia Begum and Noorjahan in history and Ruth Parawer Jhabwala and Arundhati Roy, Manju Kapur and Mahasweta Devi and many more in fictions have left their indelible imprint on the pages of history- n imprint which is suffused with such a powerful and beautiful colour which can’t be erased and darkened by Time.
                Indian woman novelists in English and in other vernaculars try to deal with the pathetic plight of forsaken women who are fated to suffer from birth to death. Now the question is: why is it that woman novelists portray mostly the miserable life of an average Indian woman? Why is it that a woman has to suffer insult and abuse, tyranny, and injustice without any rhyme and reason in this male-dominated societal framework? The answer can be sought very clearly in religious scriptures.
                         The Bible says, “Then the Lord God made the man fall into deep sleep, and while he was sleeping, he took out one of the man’s ribs and closed up the flesh. He formed a woman out of the rib and brought her to him.”-1                

Man boats and brags, domineers and dominates over woman only because woman has come out from man, she is one of the ribs of man.
In Hindu religion, the social stature of woman is not certain, sometimes upgraded and sometimes degraded. Manu, the Hindu law-giver, in one of his laws, observes:
“To be mothers women were created and to be fathers, men. The teacher is ten times more venerable than sub- teacher; the father a hundred times more than the teacher but a mother  a thousand times more than a father.”-2

Here Manu highlights the stature of woman. But in the same book he says that she is a true wife who has born a son. In Vedas too, most of the hymns are related to sons, never to daughters. Atharva Veda says: “The birth of a girl grants elsewhere, here grant a son.”-3
Thus, the tug of war between the sexes finds its expressions in the myths and legends, stories and history. The detractors of the female sex revel in saying that crookedness is an innate part of a woman. But they should not forget that she was created out of the crookedness part of the man, his rib. The champions of the fair sex also say that man was fashioned only out of the dust of the earth but woman was made from God’s own image, viz; man himself. As a matter of fact, a woman forms the pivot and nucleus of family life. It is she who has to give birth to children and to rear up the coming generation.
Plato has a very sound opinion about woman. He, in his book “The Republic” observes:   “The only difference between men and woman is one of physical function-one begets, the other bears children. Apart from that, both can and both should follow the same range of occupation and perform the same functions; they should receive the same education to enable them to do so. In this way society will get the best value from both.”-4
The history of Indian woman novelists in English begins with Toru Dutt who died at the early age of 21. Both her novels- Bianca and le Journal de medemoiselle d’Arvers deal with the autobiographical projection of the novelist-the experience, sweet and sour, she gathered in her very short life. The agony and catharsis arising out of sisterly love and bereavement in these two novels are very beautifully projected. Though the characters are Spanish and French yet delineation is entirely Indian, full of love and affection, sincerity and purity which characterize the core of an ideal Indian woman.
Cornelia Sorabji, a Parsi Christian, is the other great figure in the realm of novels. She is mainly famous for her three important works-Love and Life behind the Purdah, Sun-Babies in the Child Life of India, and Between the Twilight. She reveals in her novels the various moods and vestures going in under the ‘Purdah’-the ecstasy, tragedy, comedy and many more things which are unnoticed even by a feminist philosopher.
She seems to satirize the hypocrisy and domineering in a male dominated societal framework. To her, women are no longer object of pleasure but a reservoir of all the healthy values of life.
In short, ‘Purdah’ which plays a very important role in an average Indian woman’s life in both Muslim and Hindu, though more conservatively observed in the Muslim than in the Hindu, is the core of Sorabji’s novels.
After the Second World War the history of Indian women novelists got a new track, a new vision. In this period, Kamala Markandaya and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala are unquestionably the most outstanding personalities in the fields of social and artistic novels. Kamla Markandaya’s first novel, Nectar in a Sieve made her a loveable, writer of great fiction in theme and technique, matter and manner. The novel deals with a realistic picture of the Indian villagers, their customs and cultures, rites and traditions.
Rukmani, the narrator heroine has to face so many ups and downs, ‘fret and fever’ of life, viz., her husband’s infidelity, her daughter’s sacrificial going to the streets to save the family from hunger and starvation; the pre-mature death of the child Kuti, the ejection from the kiths and kins, so on and so forth. Here the piteous plight of Rukmani reminds us of Elizabeth Jane in Thomas Hardy’s famous novel, The Mayour of Casterbridge.
Rukamani, like an average ideal village woman, worships her husband like a God. She says, “It was my husband who woke me- my husband, I will call her Nathan, for what was his name although in all the years of our marriage I never called him that, for it is not meet for a woman to address her husband as husband”(Nectar in a Sieve).
But in spite of the unbearable and undeserved suffering faced by their heroine, the novel does not tend to be pessimistic or fatalistic as we generally see in Thomas Hardy. The last portion of the novel reveals that Rukmani finds peace at last. She brings Pulli, their adopted son. He and the other children, Selvam and Ira, are seen rebuilding the house of hope and patience on the ruins of despair and desolation.
Kamla Markandaya’s other novel which earned popularity all over India and abroad is Some Inner Fury. It shows the protagonist Mira’s recollection of the past, her emotions, passions and ecstasies. Of all her characters in the novel, Premala is the sweetest, even the most heroic, whose seeming capacity for resignation the true measure of her measureless strength.
A Silence of Desire, the third novel by Kamla Markandaya, has neither to do with economics as in Nectar in a Sieve nor to do with politics as in Some Inner Fury; it unfolds the layers of spiritual reality and mystic vision of India. It is the story of Dendekar, A government servant, who gets tortures and sufferance because of his wife, Sarojini whose attitude is just the opposite of her husband. She is suffering from a tumour and so she goes to seek a spiritual solace from the ‘Swami”. Dandekar doubts the ‘faith-cure’ belief of a Swami. Thus, through these two characters-the husband and the wife, the novelist presents an age-long confrontation between mind and soul, between intellect and emotion, between science and poetry
Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, the contemporary of Kamla Markandaya has also left an indelible imprint in the history of woman novelists in English. Her novels ring the note of two things- urban middle class Indian life tinged with domestic problems of an average joint Hindu family and an ironic study of the confrontation between occidental and oriental attitudes.
Her novel The Nature of Passion deals with a modern young girl, Nimmi, who wants to discard the age-old customs and rites, myths and tradition. She fights for the cause of woman’s emancipation. She attends club regularly, plays tennis, keeps bob-cut hair, and attends lectures on English Romantic poets. But on the other hand, her community is dead against all her western activities.
The Householder is a domestic comedy which shows Jhabvala’s acute perception of remote village life-the conflict between the mother-in-law and the daughter-in-law the one with domineering accusations and the other with taciturn enmity.
The novels which matters most in the literary career of R.P.Jhabvala is Heat and Dust which won the prestigious Booker Prize in 1975. It deals with the sad and moving story of two English women who paid their visit to India and in return they became the victims of this country.
The story tells us how Olivia and her husband Douglas come to India. Olivia falls in amorous spells of Nawab and consequently she manages to elope with him. This leads to the pregnancy and latter on, abortion of Olivia. She is given a cottage in the hills near the Nawab’s palace. She earns the title of the mistress of the Nawab.
The other woman who has to suffer a lot without any rhyme or reason was invisible narrator herself. She develops her weakness for Child, an Englishman turned Hindu. She helps him night and day during his sickness. This sympathy turns into sexuality between them. The narrator, consequently, becomes pregnant, but unlike Olivia, she doesn’t get herself aborted. She is a lady of strong hope and patience. So, she joins an Ashram and there suffers quietly. Thus both the ladies become the silent suffer destroyed by the ‘heat’.
Anita Desai deals with the mind and a soul of a character, his inner workings and hidden and silent thoughts rather than his outer appearances. Her main business as a fiction writer is to expose the truth. In this sense she is very near to Dostoevsky, Proust, Virginia Woolf, James Joyce and Henry James. In order to capture the prismatic quality of life in her fictions, she uses the stream of consciousness method and interior monologue which become coincident with consciousness. She rightly observes:
“Literature should deal with more enduring matters, less temporary and less temporal than politics. It should deal with life and with death. It should be too ironical and also too mystical to accept the world at face value and regard it as the whole or the only truth.”-5
Cry, the Peacock is the tragic story of Maya who is haunted by the astrological prediction of the death of either wife or husband. In other words, she is the victim of Hardian fate and providence, that is, an uncannily oppressive sense of fatality. To crown the effect, she has no children and thus this leads to Maya’s isolation. She is so much segregated by society and astrological dilemma that in a fit of insane fury, she kills her own husband. The symbolism of the dead dog and the peacock’s fighting before mating are highly suggestive.
The Voice in the City is the tragic story of Monisha. She has to undergo so many unbearable tyranny and injustice, insult and abuse, in her husband’s dwelling. In the long run, she commits suicide. Nirode, the brother of Monisha and Amla, her sister are also in Calcutta and all of them have to fight against the rigid conventions of middle class life, Amla is shocked and heart-broken when her love is rejected.
Where Shall We Go This Summer, as the title suggests, shows the tragic inner reality of the main character, which is stifled by the cruelty and callousness of urban life. Fed up with the burden of Children, she runs away to a small island, and persuades her husband to return.
In Fire on the Mountain, Anita Desai present the psychology of two different woman characters- Nanda, an unsentimental old  window leading a segregated hill hut, and Raka, a shy, gentle and lovely school girl by nature and instincts. The tragedy begins when Illa Das, Nanda’s bosom friend and a social worker is raped and strangled. This incident so powerfully overcasts its dark shadow on Nanda Kaul that she makes her mind to lead a life of a saint in the lap of lonely place, far from the din and bustle of city life.
In The Clear Light of Day, Vimala’s attitude is somewhat similar to that of Nanda in the sense that she also preferred to live in a decaying house surrounded by a neglected garden containing a dark and mysterious well. The beauty of the book lies in the poetic and psychological portrayal of the hidden depth of the protagonist who is haunted by numerous nostalgic event of the past.
Rama Mehta’s first novel Inside the Haveli has the credit of winning the prestigious Shahitya Akademi Award in 1979. It deals with the confrontation between culture and civilization, between city and village. It shows how Geeta, a modern Bombay girl has to lead a secluded life under the purdah in the Haveli.
Shashi Despande’s first novel, The Dark Holds No Terror deals with an unusual character Sarita, who dares to challenge the age-old tradition to marry a man of outside her caste. The love marriage between Sarita and Manu doesn’t prove to be fruitful. Her recent novel, The Binding Vine is a feminine novel which represents woman as a spineless, wooden creature subjected to male domination.
In That Long Silence, Shashi Despande makes an aesthetic plea to free the female psyche from the conventional male control. In short, all the literary ventures of Shashi Despande revolve round the pathetic and heart-rending condition of women in a male dominated society.
Mahasweta Devi, the winner of the prestigious Jnanpith and Magasasay Award for her novel, Mother of 1084 contends that womem shouldn’t be submissive and passive and should realize the inner strength of which they are known.
The novel, Mother of 1084 portrays the psychological and emotional crisis of a mother whose son is lying dead in the police morgue. She begins to think the revolutionary commitment of her son and at the same time she also thinks her alienation, as a woman and wife from the hypocritical, bourgeois society.

Manju Kapur’s Difficult Daughters presents a woman who considers marriage as he journey’s end of life. It is about the three generation of women with the emphasis on the protagonist’s mother. It presents the picture of Amritsar and Lahore, between 1937 and 1947. It is the story of Virmati, who is sandwiched between the duty towards her family and her illicit love for a married Professor.
Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things deals with a pale reflection of the haunts of her own childhood on the limpid backwaters of Kerala and the society she lived with caste prejudices. In this novel, Kerala, the most educated state with many different castes and classes, has been beautifully represented. The whole story revolves round the village, Ayemenem near Kottayam. In theme, the books peeps into the life of Keralite society, their rites and customs, traditions and patriarchal domination; a caste ridden mentality of some certain section of people whom Roy terms as ‘Laltain’; the fatal consequences arising out of divorce; the child psychology; the naked exposure of the malpractices of Marxism and Police administration; the prosecution of the untouchable, the ‘Mombatti’ etc.
Thus, in most of the writings of women novelist in English, they have tried their best to free the female mentality from the age long control of male domination. In short, in their novels, the protagonists are mostly women characters desolated and isolated by an entirely sapless, hypocritical and insensitive male domination. Today whatever political, social, culture and individual awareness we see in women, are the result of these fiction writers who heralded a new consciousness in the part of women for women’s sake go on, the days are not far when they will be equated with men in all respects, in each and every field.


  1. The Holy Bible (Good News Bible), The Bible Society of India, Bangalore, 1977, P-5.
  2. Manu Smiriti, quoted in the book, Unveiling India by Anees Jung.P-68.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Plato: The Republic, the Penguin Classics, P-225.
  5. Anita Desai: “Replies to the Questionnaire” Kakatiyads Journal of English Studies, Vol-3 No-1, 1978, P-1.

Samir N.  Parekh                                               
Visiting Lecturer (English),                                    
Rofel  Arts & Comm. College,                       
Nisha P. Kalavadiya
Assi. Prof . (English),
Govt. Arts & Comm. College, Ahwa.