Komal Agarwal Ph. D. Research Scholar Centre for English Studies Jawaharlal Nehru University New Delhi, India Ph: 9711697006 a closer Look at the “Distant Figure”1


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Komal Agarwal

Ph. D. Research Scholar

Centre for English Studies

Jawaharlal Nehru University

New Delhi, India

Ph: 9711697006
A Closer Look at the “Distant Figure”1: A Study in the ‘Absent-Presence’ of the Male Characters in Anjana Appachana’s Incantations and Other Stories

Anjana Appachana’s Incantations and Other Stories (1992) is based in the India of the 1980s, a decade when a significant change was ushering on the Indian society which was slowly embracing Western values and had still not completely opened itself to the new vistas it offered, thus leading to a generation which found itself sandwiched between the age-old Indian values and the new, liberating ideas that the West had to offer. However, the hallmark of this transition was the emergence of the ‘new woman,’ which would change the dynamics of the Indian society forever, and for the better! Owing to the times in which Appachana bases her collection, she depicts her characters, especially the womenfolk, standing at the crossroads in their lives where they are required to take crucial decisions, or to be more precise, choose between the ‘bad’ and the ‘worse’ for themselves, where they generally have to conform to the norms of the conventional Indian society even if they had envisaged a freer and happier life for themselves, failing which they are doomed to be labeled as rebellious and treated as outcastes. However, the other side of the coin has a different story to tell! If we delve deeper into the narratives, we would arrive at the realization that it is the men, the proud flag bearers of the patriarchal society, who are responsible for landing the female characters (their wives, beloveds or daughters) in tricky situations. The main thrust of this paper is to highlight the reluctance or the inability of the men in these stories to live up to their roles as husbands, partners in love, or fathers, and, at the same time, to possibly envisage how things would have been different and in some cases, even better for the womenfolk, had their male counterparts or relatives acted in a different (read more sensible and responsible) manner. The paper will thus seek to chart some alternative trajectories of the stories had the role of men been slightly altered, hypothetically, that is.

In Incantations and Other Stories, Appachana explores ‘the lives and experiences of middle-class families, particularly those of the women who live within and are defined by the expectations of these families’ (Kaur 121). Since Appachana constantly adheres to the institution of family in her stories, an examination of the male characters within the family set up gives the readers a clearer understanding of the complete set of circumstances that govern a woman’s life in the stories, and also hints at the possibility of reading the complicity of men in the unwelcome circumstances that women are left to handle all by themselves.

A look at the various husband-wife relationships in the stories of the collection should suffice to show how the men in India generally end up either running away from their duties as husbands or are, ‘blissfully enough’, unaware of the expectations of their wives! In the story “My Only Gods,” the narrator’s father, “a distant. . . figure. . . [in] green uniform and maroon beret,” is almost absent from the entire story (Appachana 1). He only arrives in the end, and this time, finally with his “posting orders,” but only after his wife had to bear years of separation from him, living with her parents and busying herself in her daughter “born after ten years of marriage,” and to our dismay, only after the narrator hints that “there must have been more” between her mother and her distant cousin, only after she has suffered a nervous breakdown (1-11)! The readers are left wondering about how the narrator’s mother must have dealt with her emotional and physical requirements in her husband’s absence. Clearly, her husband had not spared a though about the same, because even if there had been real (be it platonic) love between the two, the mother would not have drifted towards her distant cousin! It would have been a ‘happily-ever-after’ story but for the effortlessness and insensitivity of the husband. Even the narrator cannot but see her father only as a visitor, an identity that looms around her which she has to stick on to, without having any real memorable moments to cherish, because all along, he has been missing emotionally as well as physically.

Perhaps the most disappointing husband among all the stories is Siddharth, the lover-turned-husband in the story “Bahu.” Even after choosing her partner for life, the narrator of the story, who chooses to continue working even after her marriage, juggling between her roles as a working woman and as a daughter-in-law, does not even have “time alone with Siddharth” (Appachana 19). Her identity is reduced to her existence as “a good bahu” (19). Appachana uses strong words to paint the ‘bahu’s’ predicament; her husband is absent even in his presences, causing her to feel that “it was a stranger. . . [she] faced every morning” (26). Instead of playing an emotional anchor to his wife at a time when she is in dire need of her husband’s support, he blames her for her miscarriage. Later, even when she informs him about her decision to leave him, he gives her no assurance of a better conjugal life in his efforts to request her to take back her decision, seeing her off with a hackneyed “I’ll wait for you” (33). Had the husband in the story extended a patient ear to her, helped her out with the daily chores a little, or at least stood by her in trying times, she would have proudly thought that hers is not “one of ‘those’ marriages” which she thought she had safely escaped because she had married a man she had chosen for herself and apparently knew him well before deciding to settle down with him (17).

Perhaps the most heart-rending of all the stories in the collection is “Incantations.” In the story, the narrator’s elder sister Sangeeta is raped by Abhinay, the brother of her husband-to-be two days before her marriage, in spite of which she gets married to Nikhil. After her marriage, Sangeeta shares her agony and trauma only with the narrator Geeti, her twelve year old sister, recounting how “every morning. . . Abhinay raped her and at night Nikhil did” (Appachana 120). The story is a moving account of a victimized young woman who does not find enough faith and assurance in her husband to share her horrid experience of rape, has to undergo the dual trauma of marital rape as well as the repeated rape by her brother-in-law daily until she decides to end her life before killing her brother-in-law. Her suffering, which had been consuming her slowly, ends only with her death. One is left musing over how, had her husband given her the ‘comfort zone’ to speak her heart out to him, Sangeeta would have been alive, and possibly, happy! But one doubts that she would ever have been happy even if her brother-in-law did not figure as a character in the story, on account of the sexual exploitation she feels at the hands of her own husband, who does not consider her to be a companion, an equal, a partner, but merely a sexual object to satiate his own desires, without ever bothering to reach down to her heart and her innermost desires and fears.

The story of Sangeeta is indeed disturbing, but what is more shocking in the narrative is the revelation that happens in the meeting of Nikhil with the grown up narrator, years after Sangeeta’s death: all these years, Nikhil had been in the delusion that “she [Sangeeta] loved me [Nikhil]” (Appachana 135). However, in a fitting poetic justice that Appachana would provide to the narrative, before leaving, Nikhil says to the narrator “Before I met you I had hope” (ibid). Instead of feeling sorry for Nikhil, the readers are left disturbed about his ignorance of Sangeeta’s tumultuous sexual and emotional life, who could never feel one with her husband. The expectations of the readers are thwarted yet again when Geeti’s husband also shows insensitivity in judging his wife as “mad” and Sangeeta as “crazy” when she tells him the story years later in a hope that at least he would understand.

Another disturbing husband-wife relationship awaits the readers in the story “Her Mother.” The mother, who is also the narrator of the story, says of her son-in-law married to her elder daughter and stays in her house, away from his wife that “he was irresponsible, uncaring and lazy. . . he didn’t write regularly to his wife, didn’t save a paisa” (Appachana 169). Even when he is revealed as being involved in an “unacceptable [incestuous] relationship within the family” with her younger daughter that had resulted in “her daughter’s increasing alienation with her,” the mother, who would appear to be a “stereotyped,” “traditional” woman (read wife and mother), is never really “judgmental” of situations and people even in the face of such a shocking revelation (Sultana 184-86). However, “neither the father nor the daughters realize. . . the feeling of victimization that the mother keeps hidden away” (ibid 188). The mother writes to her younger daughter who is living in America and is enamoured by the status that women in the West have, “With all your talk about women’s rights . . . you refuse to see that your father has given me none” (qtd. in Sultana 188).

There are some other conjugal relationships in the collection which occupy lesser narrative spaces as compared to the ones discussed above, but nevertheless, are loaded with instances of men turning away from their duties and responsibilities in their familial ties. When Amrita from the story “The Prophecy,” the girl who was known to have “done exactly what she wanted,” is impregnated by her lover and miscarries the child, she is caught in a vicious circle of a marriage within a month of her miscarriage, has to leave her graduation incomplete, has to bear two babies in two successive years, cook meals, and finally becomes a housewife instead of being able to live her dream of becoming a journalist (Appachana 70). In a nutshell, to use the phrase from Johnson and Lloyd, Amrita is “sentenced to everyday life.” Her husband, an IAS officer, does not inspire her to complete her degree (he probably does not even know that she left her studies midway), leave alone establishing such a relationship with Amrita that she can open her heart out to him, and showing the courage to accept her with the bitter realities of her life and not rebuff her. If this is the kind of husband an IAS officer would make in the 1980s, one is horrified to imagine the life of a woman who married a commoner back then!

The collection is replete with instances of relationships between the mothers and fathers of the young characters in the stories where the mothers bear the brunt of problematic interpersonal relations with their husbands, relationships in which the husbands are oblivious to the pain or desires of their wives. For instance, the narrator of the story “Bahu” and her sisters have been testimony to their “mother’s anguish, all those frustrations, years and years of it” (Appachana 17). The narrator also reveals that her “father was oblivious to her [the mother’s] pain for he was oblivious to its causes” (ibid). He had never known, or even considered the possibility, that his wife could have had “dreams other than those of being a good wife and mother” (ibid).

Another lonely mother (or rather wife) is Mrs. Srivastava in the story “When Anklets Tinkle.” She is rendered lonely by her husband’s constant and prolonged involvement in prayers. Mr. Srivastava has time to indulge in gossips with his friends or seek “refuge with them [his Gods]” in troubled times: “His prayers had kept him in ignorance; in ignorance of her suffering, in ignorance of her pain, in ignorance of the injustice of it all” (Appachana 91). When her daughter brings sarees for her, she tells her husband that “after all these years, she was finally getting what he had never given her” (ibid 93). She has eventually accepted her fate, but on seeing her daughter’s lover putting his arm around his beloved, she is left wondering as to “[w]hy. . . had no one wanted to follow her to the ends of the earth?” (ibid 110, emphasis in original).

The mother in the story “Her Mother” envies the solitude her husband enjoyed, solitude to “sit in the verandah and think of his precious daughter” after he came back from the office, while his wife “cooked and cleaned, attended to visitors and wrote to all her sisters and his sisters” (Appachana 164). It is indeed shocking for the readers to note that on one occasion, “her husband reprimanded her for cooking only eight dishes for a dinner party,” even more because hers was a love marriage (ibid 178). Moreover, he is impressed by the maid, who has vowed not to return to her drunkard husband till he swears not to drink again. The mother writes to her daughter who is studying abroad “Your father is always enraptured by other women who stand up for themselves. If I stood up for myself he would think he was betrayed” (ibid 172). This is the irony that mires the life of the mother who chose who she wanted to spend her life with, which is why she writes to her daughter about the benefits of an arranged marriage.

The relationship that Ramsaran, the domestic help in the Srivastava household has with his wife in “When Anklets Tinkle” is also disturbing in its descriptions of jealousy and domestic violence, sexual exploitation and successive pregnancies that his wife has to undergo. Ramsaran hides in his master’s place during the Emergency in India because he wanted a male child by his wife and did not want to get sterilized. Additionally, he decides not to get himself sterilized in order to preserve his potency, not sparing a single thought for the repeated torment (physical, psychological, as well as material) that his wife has to face because of frequent childbirths. It is for this reason that on Mrs. Srivastava’s advice, Ramsaran’s decides “to have herself operated on” secretly during the next childbirth (Appachana 92). But the worse is yet to come. When she is in labour and there’s a complication in the pregnancy, Ramsaran runs to his masters shouting for help, not because he did not want to lose his wife, but because he was worried about “who would look after his six children, [and] how could they live without their mother?” (106).

Appachana dexterously brings in two instances of inconsiderate husbands from the Hindu mythology in two of her stories, “Bahu” and “Incantations.” While the episode of Lord Rama abandoning his pregnant wife in the forest in the Ramayana features in both the stories, the mention of Draupadi being gambled away by her husbands in the Mahabharata is mentioned in the story “Incantations.” Appachana, through these two references, shows how even the gods we worship were not flawless, and questions our belief in such gods, who are also known as ‘Maryada Purushottam Rama’2 and Dharmaraja Yudhishthir3. Both could not fulfill their duties as husbands and left their righteous wives in the midst of unprecedented difficulties, instead of standing by their sides and performing their rightful duties as husbands. This leads us to put under the scanner the suitability of these titles for both Rama and Yudhisthir.

Let us now move on to the realm of the love relationships in the collection, and the instances of the lover not living up to the expectations of his beloved, often landing her in difficulties and pushing her into the gallows of isolation and loneliness. We have already seen how the lover-turned-husband in “Bahu” is estranged to his beloved once the marriage consummates. It seems as though love really flies out of the window after marriage! Because of a series of unfortunate events and lack of compassion and compatibility from her husband, the beloved-turned-wife is left with no other option but to leave him and his house.

For some undisclosed reason, Appachana does not allow the lover to assume responsibility for his actions in the story “The Prophecy” when he discovers that Amrita, his girlfriend, is pregnant with their child. The girl, who held numerous dreams before the pregnancy, ultimately marries another man after her miscarriage and finds herself caught up in never-ending household chores. Rakesh, the lover is not given a chance to even meet Amrita once before she leaves. A possible reason for the narrative silence on this matter might be that Rakesh did not instill enough confidence in Amrita that she could confide in him, that he would be by her side, come what may. He was definitely wrong in not having used contraception when they made love to each other. Why did he not take note of the fact that having unprotected sex could land Amrita, more than anybody else, in great trouble?

In “When Anklets Tinkle,” Namita’s love-interest, Rao, has had affairs with different girls and has spent nights with them before he meets Namita and falls in love with her. He has been frivolous by nature and has never spared a thought for his activities, about how the knowledge of the same would hurt his beloved or wife in future. What is of concern here is the possibility that he could have very well chosen to remain a one-woman man, but he chose not to. In the story, Namita finally leaves aside her doubts and accepts Rao. But the readers cannot help but muse over the outcome of the situation had the tables been turned: would Rao accept Namita if she would have done the same in her past before meeting Rao? The answer, in the India of the 1980s, would definitely not have been in the affirmative!

The readers are faced with a case of infidelity which could have been potentially harmful or destructive in “Her Mother.” The narrator’s son-in-law is involved in an extra marital affair with his younger sister-in-law. His case is noteworthy because on the one hand, he has cheated on his wife, and on the other, has created such a stifling atmosphere for his sister-in-law that she has to leave the country and go abroad on the pretext of pursuing higher studies. He is solely responsible for rendering “a girl so intense and articulate” utterly alone and suffering (Appachana 162).

Having examined the different shades of courtship and conjugality, we now move on to an examination of the father-daughter relationships in the collection. The fathers, even if they are more attached to their daughters, as is often believed, are either absent from the scene of action, or are inaccessible or unavailable when the daughters are in distress. Noteworthy is the fact that although the fathers may sometimes appear to be showing more affection and inclination towards their daughters than their wives, it is the mothers who come to the rescue of their daughters when they are in trouble.

Let us take a few examples for consideration. The narrator’s father in “My Only Gods,” as already mentioned earlier, is “a distant but beloved figure,” so much so that when he finally returns to live with his wife and daughter, his daughter can feel “his unfamiliar body” occupying the bed that she had been sharing with her mother (Appachana 1-11). In the story “Bahu,” the narrator’s father is portrayed in a favourable light, but this is the only story where this happens. He is not seen as the perfect man by the narrator herself; she agrees that “with his daughters, my father was different. . . he spent time with us. . . but not with my mother” (ibid 17). So we have this one instance of a good father in the collection, who is not a good husband, both at the same time. Then again, not to forget, we have Siddharth, the narrator’s husband, a would-be father, who sits by her side after she miscarries, only to blame her for the abortion, adding that “at this rate you’ll never be able to have a baby” (ibid 25). In the story “The Prophecy,” we have Amrita’s father shaking “his head uncomprehendingly” when he discovers that his daughter is aborting (ibid 78). He did not allow her to complete her degree because he had become “a broken man,” and instead of gathering himself up and lending his shoulder to his daughter to cry on, he marries her off to a man who assigns her the roles of a wife, a mother of two, and a housewife, diametrically opposite her desire to become a journalist (ibid). Her father had stopped talking to her after the incident and only “began speaking to her after her son was born” while her mother “stood by her” (ibid 79).

Mr. Srivastava, Namita’s father in the story “When Anklets Tinkle” is always “immersed in his prayers. . . oblivious to what was going on” (Appachana 102). It is the mother who “tutored the children, managed the house, worked as a schoolteacher, and saved [both money and the family]” while her husband just prayed (ibid 91, emphasis in the original). Does only buying “chicken, mangoes and jamun” when one’s daughter arrives for a vacation suffice to live up to one’s role as a father? Moreover, Mrs. Srivastava is right in asking Namita if she could “tell poor Daddy what she had done?” because clearly enough, he did not have the heart to hear that his daughter has had an intimate relationship with a man before marriage and was not even sure if she wanted to marry him (ibid 105, emphasis in the original). He is so out of touch with reality that when Rao asks them to persuade Namita to marry him, he says, “Why do you need persuasion, my child?” (ibid 107). Being a father, he does not take into account the fact that his daughter may have her priorities, her wishes, her desires, her choices and the right to say a ‘no’ to Rao’s proposal.

Sangeeta and Geeti’s father in “Incantations” also belongs to the same lot of insensible fathers. Although he weeps “in spasms of uncontrolled sounds” when the truth of Sangeeta’s life is let out to him, years ago, he refused to lend a warm consolation and explanation to Geeti, the narrator, when she discovers the truth behind her sister’s death, dismissing her just by saying, “Don’t ask me anything” (Appachana 111-136). Does he not run away from his parental responsibilities at a time when he should nurture his daughter, and at a tender age when the narrator is already so heartbroken? Then, it was Mala Mousi who had to “do. . . for your [Geeti’s] parents” what they ought to have done themselves (Appachana131).

The narrator’s husband in “Her Mother” is also an absentee who appears in the scene only to blame his wife for their daughter’s unwillingness to marry. He has the opinion that “the mother had. . . only encouraged her and her sister to think and act with an independence quite uncalled for in daughters” (Appachana 165). Therefore, it is not surprising to note that in the story, it is only the mother, and not the father, who is in touch with her daughter who studies abroad through letters, while all that the father does after returning from office is “sit in the veranda and think of his precious daughter” (165).

According to Kaul, “the specificity of these options and possibilities” that Appachana allows her characters in the story is because her stories are very much rooted in the milieu she writes (134). But Appachana’s appeal is timeless and all-pervading, at least in the context of India even today. The position of women as reflected in the landscape of home and family in the collection reflects the fact that men ought to come out of their misunderstood self-righteousness and take up their responsibilities and duties—their roles as husbands, lovers and fathers—in a more dignified manner. After all, family does matter! They should wake up to the expectations that their wives, beloveds or daughters have from them, and try to at least create a haven for them, if not heavens!

Works Cited

  1. Appachana, Anjana. Incantations and Other Stories. New Delhi: Penguin, 2006.

  2. Kaul, Suvir. “Who’s Afraid of Mala Mousi? Violence and the ‘Family Romance’ in Anjana Appachana’s ‘Incantations.’” Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature. 1 (Spring 2000): 121-36. Accessed 23 Mar. 2009 from http://jstor.org/stable/464412

  3. Sultana, Rebecca. “Tradition and Modernity as Played Out in Anjana Appachana’s ‘Her Mother.’” Indian Women’s Short Fiction. Eds. Joel Kuortti and Rajeshwar Mittapalli. New Delhi: Atlantic, 2007. 183-90.

  4. Johnson, Lesley and Justine Lloyd. Sentenced to Everyday Life: Feminism and the Housewife. Oxford, NY: Berg, 2004.

1 A phrase taken from the story “My Only Gods” in the collection Incantations and Other Stories. In the story, this is how the narrator sees her father who is mostly away on duty. The phrase is doubly symbolic, because not only is the narrator’s father “a distant. . . figure” for his daughter, there are clear indications that he is also the absent husband for his wife. This phrase has been chosen because it sums up the main purpose of the paper, to show how the men in the collection have an ‘absent-presence.’

2 Lord Rama was also referred to as ‘Purushottam,’ literally meaning best among men who respected tradition and fulfilled the duties he was expected to perform. However, he deserves the epithet only as the ideal son and later, the ideal king of Ayodhya who relinquished his wife for the sake of his kingdom.

3 Yudhishthir, who was the son of Dharma, was also known as Dharmaraj because he was believed to have kept up to dharma (literally, duty) in the most trying of circumstances. However, even followed the path of dharma (duty) when it came to all his other than his duty as a husband and put Draupadi at stake and in a game of gamble with Duryodhana and then lost her.


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