Difficult Daughters, by Manju Kapur, written in 1998, tells the story of Virmati, an Amritsar-based young girl, the eldest daughter of an middle-class Arya Samaj family in which nevertheless certain traditions weigh as much as in any other more backward looking ones of the time. It’s set against the backdrop of World War II and the India-Pakistan Partition of 1947, and even if perhaps the junction between the two motifs: the romance and family one, and the political and historical one, isn’t absolutely coherent and polished over, one does get a sense that they co-interpret one another. Just like the two burgeoning nations, the young woman reaches out for independence, but gets trapped in the throes of violence and frustration as the outreach to freedom cannot be decreed or ordained as if one wasn’t dependent on one’s ties with the past and the pre-existing structures.
In fact Kapur has planned her novel as a three-generational feminine confession, with the middle woman (Virmati) holding centre position, and whose story is the only fully-fledged one. The other two are (to my mind) not very useful, apart from the fact that they do give Virmati’s struggles a context in which to understand where she comes from and what she prepares for, but so little is delineated of Kasturi (the mother) and Ida (the daughter) that one wonders whether this attempt accounts to much more than a narrative trick. Well, I’m unjust as far as the mother is concerned of course, because she’s very much part of Virmati’s life, but her own fight for independence (to be placed back in the 1920s presumably), fleetingly alluded to now and then, amounts to almost nothing. She becomes Virmati’s wall of traditions, perhaps in spite of herself, but certainly whatever she might have gone through when younger was but a drop of individuality in the full patila of traditions and conventionality. Of course these family and social traditions are the book’s main obstacle but also, in a sense, its driving force; they are what everyone takes for granted as far as girls and women are concerned. The only possible destiny for a girl is to be married and live under the protection of a man. Otherwise she’s doomed.
So when Virmati, sent to school to be educated under the broad-minded ideas of her grandfather, is spotted by her teacher because (being short-sighted) she has to sit right under his desk, and he fancies her wide eyes and fair complexion, a train of events is unleashed which will make everybody curse her for having strayed out of the only acceptable path laid out for girls: a respectable husband chosen by the family, by the clan, by the traditions, by centuries of unquestioned practices. Of course this is mid XXth century, and a woman might work, but only is she’s single. Marriage means servitude to one’s husband, one’s in-laws and one’s fertility. The story tests the resistance of traditional social forces against the pressure of modern ideas and possibilities, and what’s interesting is the way Kapur makes us feel the pull. And it’s definitely in the direction of traditions and age-old practices. Virmati starts her hushed love-story with “the Professor” (who’s married and lives next doors), but her family have chosen a bridegroom for her, whom she refuses and, confronted to the conflicting demands of family wedding and forbidden love, she cannot help feeling totally trapped. She writes a letter to her Professor saying she’s leaving this world, and walks to a canal location where water is deep enough to do just that.
When the family realizes how far she’s gone in terms of sacrifice, they understand and soon guess what has been going on (she’s saved from the canal BTW). They relent as far as the wedding is concerned, but become her enemies, enemies who will try at all costs, not to understand her or protect her like any caring family would, but to psychologically torture her in order for her to be married and their karma to be lessened. Because if a girl doesn’t marry, it’s shame upon shame for the family’s social worth; then if the younger daughter marries sooner than the elder one (which is what happens, Virmati’s bridegroom is recycled for her sister), more shame. Our heroine’s recourse is to suggest that she prefers studying to marrying: a scandal, but it’s the only way out for the time being. The family immediately flings any pursuit of studies in the cauldron of shame, because this is what has side-tracked a young girl from fulfilling her feminine duty of marrying and becoming a mother. Mind you, Virmati would have been ready for this future, hadn’t she been loved by the wrong guy – she’s “a simple girl”, as is said of her occasionally. She’s learned all the kitchen and house skills, she dotes on children, she already possesses this bossy character with her younger siblings which would have suited her for a conventional family life…But love got there first, and, simple as she is, it means that she cannot change and be the bride which everybody (except the Professor) would want her to be.
So among heavy suspicions and regretful acceptance, Virmati is allowed to go studying in Lahore, under the supervision of chosen chaperones and protected by thick walls. Of course, the lovers take advantage of the distance from the family and their affair carries on; Virmati makes a friend of her witty, free-thinking roommate, Swarna, who joins feminist political struggles and tries to enroll her meeker buddy, but Viru’s centre of gravity is elsewhere. What had to happen happens, she becomes pregnant and must go through the ordeal of abortion, without telling her lover who’s kept out of this unpleasant business. Again the reader has to plod through the difficult moments of the heroine’s submissiveness to her unspoken hardships: silence, tears, frustration, thwarted hopes, rejection and blame – the short episodes of love when the professor comes to see her in Lahore and they make love at a friend’s house, are scant comfort. That independence of hers comes with a heavy cost, and the worst is that she didn’t really want it. She would have been much freer without it. Could this parable mean something for India? Does Kapur draw a parallel here?
Probably not, not all the way at least. The author nevertheless subtly criticizes the injection of modernism through her descriptions of the professor’s values and references. Each time he mentions his hopes of their life together, it’s with a quote from a poet, often a Western one; he lets himself driven away with passionate arguments about the politics of the day, forgetting that his young lover is in need of attention and decisiveness which need more than elaborate sentences and clever debates. He’s in love, yes, truly, but he’s also selfish, also truly. He never really takes into consideration the problem he’s caused her life to become. Because of his desire, her life has been transformed beyond recognition into a social monster whom no one understands and can accept. Okay, he explains that he was married as an infant to a woman he cares nothing for. Up to a certain extent, he’s a victim of the system as well. But the one move that relieves Virmati a little of the horrendous life she’d been leading so far doesn’t come from him, but from a poet-friend who insists the professor marries her. Yes, even if he’s already married! Well, if this solution is a solution?! Dreadful to think of, it is, for her.
And then starts a new ordeal, her life at her in-laws house, where she’d always dreaded of going when she led her guilty lover’s life…Whew! So as I was saying, the pull of the book is our interest in how all of this will end: will Virmati and her husband find the peace they’ve been craving? Will she make peace with her family and with herself? What will her future be? Will she become independent? These answers would perhaps have been forthcoming, but the thunderstorm of History transforms them into flimsy little wisps which its Wind will blow away to nothingness: having already lived the war-years, another much more formidable war is about to crash on them and when Partition breaks loose, everything they once held dear flies in a whirl of destruction and meaninglessness.
Difficult daughters thus makes one follow not so much a young woman’s trials to reach a pleasing feministic independence; rather it makes us admit that social order and keeping one’s place can be looked upon as preferable in certain historical circumstances. The title therefore may not necessarily read as an indictment of the system, but more soberly perhaps as a grieving comment on the difficulty which girls represent in families and the society at large. It is (was?) indeed more difficult to be a daughter than a son in India, and independence (political and social) does not necessarily bring anything in terms of solution. Or anyway freedom and independence are two different things. The age-old social and familial fabric have placed girls in a pivotal role, that of the “Mother Indias” and it takes a good deal of spirit to adhere to the model in spite of everything. But if they do adhere, then peace, at least, might follow.