About the Author:
Manju Kapur is a celebrated Indian novelist. She currently resides in New Delhi and is an English Literature professor at Miranda House, her alma mater. Her debut novel ‘Difficult Daughters’ (1998) won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize (Eurasia Section) in 1999. Her other famous works are ‘A Married Woman’ (2002), ‘Home’ (2006), ‘The Immigrant’ (2008) and ‘Custody’ (2011).
Born in 1948, Amritsar, Manju Kapur studied graduated from Miranda House college for women in New Delhi. She pursued her masters from Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia and her M. Phil from Delhi University.
Manju Kapur is known for the feministic elements she incorporates in her novel. She talks about the different kinds of roles women play in society and how tradition enables male domination and hence the marginalization of women.
Manju Kapur’s debut novel ‘Difficult Daughters’ revolves around the lives of Ida and her mother Virmati. It highlights the difficult relationship between a mother and daughter across generations. Ida, a middle-aged woman, is introduced to the reader as a divorcee, whose mother had recently passed away. She travels to Amritsar and then Lahore to understand her mother ‘Virmati’s’ life.
Ida talks to her mother’s relatives, people who had a connection with her mother and makes it a point to visit all the places her mother had spent time in, to come up with one congruent story of her mother’s life. Virmati was the eldest daughter in the Arya Samaji household she was born into. She had eleven siblings for whom she acted as a second mother . Virmati shares a special bond with Parvati, her youngest sibling. During her pursuit of education in AS College, she has an illicit affair with her professor Harish (Ida’s Father) and faces the bitter treatment from her family, especially from her mother Kasturi. Eventually, Virmati marries Harish and goes through many struggles.
‘Difficult Daughters’ delves deep into the conflict between the traditional role of women in society versus Virmati’s desire to break-free through education. The novel also deals with the issue of maternal apathy, while it is set in the horrid times of World War- II and the partition of India.
“Difficult Daughters” highlights the difficult relationship between a mother and daughter; in the context of the novel Ida and Virmati as well as Kasturi and Virmati. The Novel begins with the line “The one thing I had wanted was not to be like my mother.” states the narrator Ida’s strained relationship with Virmati. She goes back to visit Amritsar which she could only imagine in relation to her mother to learn more about Virmati’s painful past. Ida is described as a middle-age woman, who is divorced. Her marital status is frowned upon throughout the novel. Her mother’s relatives attribute Ida’s divorce to her mother Virmati’s character.
“But with Virmati for mother, it is not strange that such a thing should happen…”
The focal point of the novel is modernity versus traditions. And how traditions curb the rights of women in society.
“The tradition that refuses to entertain doubt or remains impervious to new thoughts and ideas, becomes a prison rather than a sustaining life force.”
Virmati was the eldest daughter of Kasturi and Suraj Prakash. Ida learns about her mother Virmati through her uncles and aunts and her mother’s acquaintances, though they are reluctant to tell her about Virmati’s unconventional life.
“My relatives are polite, respectful to the dead. I am not satisfied. I dig and dig until they reveal reluctantly.”
Ida’s eagerness to ‘dig’ up her mother’s past, shows her desperation to connect and to know her mother. She learns about how her mother ran the house since her grandmother Kasturi used to always remain sick. Virmati was described as short-tempered, bossy and quick-witted. She was a well-educated woman who did her masters even after marriage. At the age of ten Virmati was accustomed to her mother’s frequent pregnancies and even make sure that her siblings did not litter on her aunt Lajwanti’s side of the house. Her aunt Lajwanti’s daughter Shakuntala inspires Virmati to be independent, educated and an empowered woman.
Virmati yearned for affection but never received it from her mother. She falls in love with her neighbour and college professor Harish Chandra, though he was already married. He views Virmati as special and worth to be his companion unlike his wife because she was educated. When her family tries to get her married off to a Canal Engineer Inderjit, Virmati attempts suicide. Unable to tell her family about Harish she uses education as a reason to refuse marriage. Her family feels ashamed and disappointed in Virmati and lock her up for a long time. They finally sent her to study in Bahadur Sohan Lal Training college for Women, in Lahore. Kasturi was completely opposed to the idea of Virmati living in a hostel.
“Kasturi looked around, a tightness in her throat. My poor girl, for this she wouldn’t marry. For living in solitary, poky little room in a strange city, for eating hostel food, for the loneliness of single life.”
She continues to have a physical relationship, during her stay in Lahore, with Harish and ends up getting an abortion as he is hesitant about marrying her. Virmati feels guilty that she was not like her roommate Swarna Lata or other women who were politically active.
“Virmati was amazed at how large an area of life these women wanted to appropriate for themselves. Strikes, academic freedom, the war, peace, rural upliftment, mass consciousness, high prices due to the war, the medium of instruction, the congress committee, the Muslim League, anti-imperialism, Independence Day Movement, rally, speeches. Virmati’s head was swimming. They were talking a language she had yet to learn.”
After coming back from Lahore to Amristar, she goes to Nahan with Diwan Saheb to become the principle of “Pratibha Kanya Vidyalaya”. She decided to leave from Amritsar as “Leaving her home meant leaving reproaches and her mother’s silent disapproval.”
Virmati’s character is unconventional and on the surface, it appears as if she got everything she wanted in her life, i.e. education and marriage with the love of her life. However, Manju Kapur shows the price Virmati had to pay for challenging traditions and walking on her own path. Virmati suffers from alienation, disrespect, a loss of identity, and familial love.
“She wondered drearily whether this isolation would continue till the end of her life.”
She becomes the second wife of Harish and his first wife Ganga’s children call her “gandi” or bad. Harish’s mother Kishori Devi perceives her as “some shameless Punjabi” who trapped her son. Ganga often adulterated Virmati’s food and did not let Virmati to use the kitchen. “Ganga” is referred to as “the woman” by Ida, which depicts her dislike towards Ganga.
Kasturi, herself goes through many struggles. Her multiple pregnancies took a toll on her body and during her 11th pregnancy, she desired for a miscarriage, just like Lajwanti who has had two abortions. She calls her Dai and uses her remedy to induce a miscarriage but it fails.
“Kasturi could not remember a time when she was not tired, when her feet and legs did not ache. Her back curved in towards the base of her spine, and carrying her children was a strain.”
Manju Kapur shows the poor state of a woman’s reproductive health through Kasturi’s character, she is aloof from her own children as she is always ill. She becomes the epitome of maternal apathy because of her condition. Virmati goes through the pain of a miscarriage before she conceives Ida.
The novel is set against the backdrop of Indo-Pakistan partition in 1947 and communal violence. The three-generation of women (Kasturi, Virmati and Ida) act as a political allegory as they represent the different stages of the freedom struggle. Kasturi, the mother represents the pre-independence and is shown as a victim of the offensive control of patriarchy. Virmati, symbolizes the country’s struggle for independence on a macro level. Psychologically, she reveals her rebellious nature against deep-rooted conventions of morality, especially for a girl. She undertakes her journey to the path leading to one’s individuality but to her, it leaves in the midway with no achievement. Ida, Virmati’s daughter is the product of the post-independence era, she was born after Indian attainted freedom and establishes herself as an independent woman. Virmati even wanted to name her “Bharati” but Harish insists on naming her Ida. The name “Ida” has a German origin and literally means “work or labour”. Ida is the result of her mother Virmati’s hard work.
My View of the Novel:
The novel is Ida’s attempt to find out a congruent story about her mother’s past. She hears out everyone associated with her mother and presents their point of view to the readers in an unbiased manner. All characters in “Difficult Daughters” have their own set of struggles which influences their behaviour. In the epilogue, Ida expresses how she was expected to be the model daughter and the “pressure” she felt day and night. The pressure made Ida resort to “escape routes”. She escaped from her disastrous marriage with Prabhakar, whom she chooses as her partner because he was like her father Harish and Virmati approved him. Ida relates to her mother when she learns that Virmati too had an abortion. “I knew mother what it was like to have an abortion.” Unlike, Virmati her partner and her abortion both were not her choice. “I was nothing, husbandless, childless. I felt myself hovering like a pencil notation on the margins of society.” She felt miserable and like an outcast when Virmati was alive and when “her shadow” did not threaten Ida, she felt free.
She was unable to tell her mother the pain she felt after killing her baby. “because you thought Prabhakar was so wonderful and I was glad that in the choice of my husband I have pleased you.” Ida addresses her mother in the novel even though Virmati had passed away. She says all the things that had haunted her in the past probably because she would not have to worry about getting Virmati’s approval anymore.
By finding out her mother’s past and how even she was perceived as a disappointment, Ida in a way proves to her mother that they both were not very different. The “book” connects Virmati and Ida. It is as if Ida asks her mother to let her be and not “haunt” her. She is haunted by her mother’s disapproval and yearns for her mother’s love. The entire book “Difficult Daughters” in itself is Ida’s effort to reconcile with her mother and to mend their difficult relationship.
The theme of partition does not add much into the novel and has no significant impact on Virmati or Ida. Kasturi accepts Virmati during the tense and grave atmosphere of India-Pakistan partition. But nothing extremely traumatizing or significant happens to the main characters.
My Rating: 4.5/5
Do I recommend this book?
“Difficult Daughters” does an excellent job in depicting the complicated relationship between mothers and daughters. It also discusses an important theme of how tradition limits women in terms of seeking higher education and how it also empowers them by giving them a sense of belonging. If you want to read something on partition and how it traumatized families and new generations it is better to go for “Shadow Lines” by Amitav Ghosh.
Difficult daughters, a novel by Manju Kapur, Published in 1998