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4 May 2018
Such an intense novel that ignites fires within you if you can relate to at least one of the many horrendous incidents in the novel. “Inga” by Poile Sengupta is the story of the close relationship between two Brahmin cousins, Inga and Rapa. But it is so much more than this. It is an in-depth study in women-centric fiction. “Inga” belongs to so many genres at once – coming-of-age, family story, feminism and a dash of mystery too.

The whole plot is in the form of letters (written by Inga to Rapa over the years), journal entries and stories by Rapa. Through the plot, the author cleverly provides an insight into the viciousness of the patriarchal system. Never have I read such a novel which stirred all kinds of negative emotions in me. I was enraged, exasperated, sad and helpless at the protagonist’s life. I could not be like Rapa who was docile and nonchalant to whatever came her way when she was a child. Rapa never minded the barbed comments from the people in her Brahmin household, Komala Nivas, as long as she was in the company of her cousin, Inga. Rapa never felt affected by her parents’ lack of affection for her. Not a single person in the house had a good thing to say about her. It was always about her dark skin and how she would be ineffectual as a wife. Rapa and Inga become thick friends in spite of their differences. They are like the saying “opposites attract”.

Much of the narrative is in colloquial English. And this is what adds to the charm and originality of the plot. The characters are so real that they ARE people you know. I could relate so much to this book as I have come across people who are like the characters in the book. Many of Rapa’s predicaments were mine too. And that is why this book is particularly relevant in these times when girls are encouraged to rebel against meaningless ‘applies to girls only’ patriarchal rules and customs.

There are a few hilarious scenes which are much needed to let off the steam building up on account of the scathing remarks to Rapa.

Like these for instance:

“My father charmed Mother Superior into believing that a brother of mine in Kerala, who was dying of a mysterious family curse, wanted to see his baby sister before he closed his eyes and was harvested by our Heavenly Father. I remember standing in the stuffy school parlour with its strange food smells, watching Mother Superior’s face. It was the face of the white race listening to an outlandish heathen tale; she looked disbelieving, horrified, concerned, anxious. My father hastened to assure her that the illness was not infectious in the least and that it affected only the third male offspring in every sixth generation. ‘The Sisters shall say a special rosary for your poor brave son,’ she said in her Irish burr”

and

“Folding the saris was like going to war without weapons... My mother’s six-yard length of sari was bad enough, but Great Aunt’s nine was as never-ending as my father’s showy morning worship of all his gods and goddesses.”

Then there are parts and passages which are enough to make a progressive woman's blood boil. More so if you have started questioning male supremacy and foolish patriarchal notions so deeply embedded in everyone’s minds that it has become normal. I almost feel that the author might have experienced most of the injustices suffered by Rapa. Like the famous “adakkam” speech (I had posted this earlier here). Then this:

“...her true function was to captivate a man as well placed as possible, and entice him into wedlock. To this end, she had to make men’s eyes turn towards her and rest there long enough for it to be interpreted as approval. When I thought deeper about this, I realized that all those who are born with the female apparatus have to parade themselves and use the arts of a prostitute no matter to which household they belonged. What is the difference between a woman who traps a man into marriage and another who uses the same wiles to entertain him for a night? Such thoughts would never trouble my father, of course, nor my mother neither. Never. She was virtue incarnate, wasn’t she?”

This made me laugh and fume at the same time. Some people have very weird notions of apparel. Rapa was never allowed to wear a salwar, the most modest piece of clothing.

“...if I could wear a salwar kameez, I would not have to worry about hips and the like. Unfortunately, my father was at home and he heard me. ‘That north Indian costume?’ he thundered. ‘You call it a dress? Will any girl from a decent family wear it? It shows everything, everything that a woman must hide. Have you seen the bottom thing spread out for drying? So vulgar it looks, like a woman with legs spread out. Karmam. Karmam. I have to close my eyes when I see it hanging in that Punjabi’s courtyard.”

Rapa rebels against her own name and that of Inga’s as well
“Inga is a sort of diminutive of her very proper, official name – Ranganayaki. My name has been formed with the first syllables of Rajalaksmi Parvathy. Goddesses! What a pompous set of names these are. I hate them.”

She talks contemptuously about “a freshly-bathed woman with turmeric marks on her face... the model of chastity, a courtyard with a lamp lit at the basil plant expressed a serene household within. Fiddlesticks!”

We still have these kind of notions in our society. A married woman is treated with derision if her thaali (mangalsutra) is not visible and if that red head-light, the conspicuous kumkumam, is not heaped generously on her forehead. She is supposed to cover her chest with a dupatta and if wearing a sari, has to take care that her bums are twice covered and thus, twice removed from reality. At least 10 safety pins on your sari, I think, are enough to ensure that your modesty is within safe limits – away from prying, roving eyes of “men who will be men”.

After reading this book, along with real life incidents, the surge of fury just keeps rising. I just wish I had the courage to defy, disobey, flout, challenge, oppose, resist when I was young. Winding up my thoughts on this book with this special something from the book itself. Depending on your mood, you can laugh (show all your teeth while laughing by the way) or fume (make sure you turn red). Here goes

The Book of Decorum for Brahmin Women
1. You shall not go past your Elders without stopping to greet them. You shall touch your head to the ground before them wherever they may be standing.
2. You shall not greet your Husband with a smile or anything of a similar nature, in public. You shall always stand behind him, to his left, in silence.
3. You shall never, never address your Husband by his Name either in private or in public. His Name is Sacred and not for your use.
4. You shall never, never, never make any physical contact with your Husband either in public or in private. In the Private chamber, the Husband shall initiate physical intimacy.
5. You shall never, never, never display private emotion in public and seek sympathy from any Male, including your Husband.
6. You shall not give expression to any form of pain, especially during childbirth.
7. You shall not sneeze or cough in public.
8. You shall not laugh in public. In the privacy of the bedchamber, you are to laugh moderately in the presence of your Husband.
9. You shall not wear flowers loosely in your hair. Flower strings have to be fixed firmly to the hair plait.
10. You shall not have knowledge of matters more than your Husband.
11. You shall not discuss matters pertaining to your sex with anybody other than your mother or sister. In their absence, you shall bring up such matters with your sister-in-law. Provided she is married.
12. You shall, at all times, remain quiet, submissive and obedient. The mark of a true Brahmin woman is her ability to suffer in secret. Additional rules shall be imposed as and when they are found necessary. Women who faithfully observe these abovementioned regulations will be endowed with wealth, their cattle will increase and the coconuts will be tender. Such women will be blessed with male progeny and their Husbands shall rise and call them virtuous.

AMEN!
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