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As I finished reading R. K. Narayan’s brilliant Masterpiece---The Dark Room, it left me wondering how the author has beautifully crafted the marital saga of a couple interspersed with conservatism along with the dawn of reformists ideas.
Last week did witness in celebrating International Women’s Day, but RKN’s had already planted the seeds of “Emancipation and Empowerment of Women” in his literary work during that era when such things were considered to be taboo.
Typically situated in Malgudi, RKN weaves the characters with such depth that leaves a strong impact on us. His main protagonists —Ramani (working in senior position in Engladia Insurance Company) and his wife Savitri shared a volatile relation with respect to each other. This middle aged Tam Bram couple with 3 school going children- Babu, Sumati & Kamala along with their cook and helper lead a very comfortable life in Malgudi.
Ramani, the MCP, expected perfect order in the house. Right from seeing him to the office to opening the motor shed when he returned back in his Chevrolet, the meek and docileSavitri had to be there at his beck and call. Every morning, apart from doing the daily chores, giving bath to Kamala, tying up daughter’s pigtails, packing them off to school; she had to listen to the nasty comments Ramani passed on when his choice of food was not served. Poor lady endured all and always had a sigh of relief the moment he left. She had to wait in the afternoon to serve meals to her daughters when they returned from school. Her only recreation was to go to her friends Gangu and elderly Janamma’s house to share the day’s story.
Once when Ramani discovered that Savitri was not in the home to receive him when he came early from the office, he burst at her. He immediately dragged her to watch old Krishna movie ---“Kuchela” leaving the kids at home to fend for them. Savitri tried helplessly to convince her husband to take the kids but he adamantly upheld his views!
Savitri, being very traditional and religious celebrated all the festivals in devout manner. During one such Navaratri, wherein plenty of clay dolls of various Gods, Goddesses, animals, people etc were arranged on steps made out of wooden planks, the entire family except Ramani was enthusiastic in decoration. Babu with his half - baked knowledge on electricity added some extra lightings to enhance the dolls. But in the evening, as he put on the switch, the fuse blew away and the house was plunged in darkness. When Ramani came to know about it, he thrashed Babu. Savitri could not see her son mercilessly being slapped and she revolted. But being conservative, she could not utter more, wept and threw herself to the DARK ROOM, next to the store.
This DARK roomepitomized Savitri’s revolt against her husband’s inhumane nature. She would always sulk there, sometimes for days, with unkempt hair, not eat food or take bath, brood at her fate, feel helpless at her sordid state, pity that she is being treated like dirt by him.
As Savitri lay there, it did not move her husband at all. According to him, no one was indispensible and ordered the cook to do the chores without bothering to cajole his wife. He behaved extra nice with the kids and completely ignoredSavitri’s tantrums and left for office. The daughters were shocked that mother had not yet come out of the dark room and ran to Janamma for help. Later after being convinced by her friend how men are, Savitri came out of the dark room and returned to her chores.
Ramani’s office was hiring female probationers to canvass about their life insurance polices meant for women. During one such interview, Ramani happened to meet Mrs.Shanta Bai from Mangalore who had left her alcoholic husband. He was immediately drawn to her beauty though she never showed any interest in him. Being single, he didn’t want Shanta bai to stay in hotel. Instead, provided room in his office for her to stay much to the amusement of the staff. He showered extra concern in taking the spare cot, few vessels, a chair and the teakwood bench ---the only favorite piece of furniture of Savitri from his house to have illicit affair with Shanta.
Savitri realized that,despite protesting he did not listen to her. Soon she started hearing rumors about his infidelity.She became sulkier, cursed her fate and even started dressing up well for him. But Ramani returned very late at nights and even did not have time for the kids. Once when he did not come by night, Savitri grew more suspicious. Later in the evening, she had a major argument with him about leaving this woman once and for all. Ramani bounced back and in a fit of rage asked her to get out of the house.
It was for the first time that she had stepped out in late night. She was so disappointed that she enteredSarayu River to end her life. At that time, Mari—a blacksmith cum robber saved her and took her to his village. His wife took care of Savitri. But Savitri was adamant to be self-reliant and work for herself. Finally she got a job in a temple to clean Gods idols at the mercy of an old priest for half measure rice and quarter coin a day. Savitri was overjoyed with her own earnings for she no longer had to be dependent on Ramani. That night when she had to stay alone in a small dingy room adjacent to the temple, strange thoughts crept her. She couldn’t believe how she had revolted against her husband in this manner. As any mother, she was feeling guilty in abandoning her children. She worried how they would cope up and who would take care of them. Heart of heart, she decided to gulp her husband’s insults and immediately, set off for Malgudi to return back home….
Many would feel that RKN has made Savitri --a very weak character that finally succumbs to the male dominated society. Instead of coping up with challenges in life & succeeding it, RKN has given twist to the Savitri’s character in accepting that life is meaningless without husband and kids. But on the other hand, Shanta bai seems to portray the “liberated woman” who lives life according to her terms without bothering about the society. Whatever the author had in mind, this striking contrasts between both the women is a reflection of the Indian society prevalent around 1938. This poignant tale has plenty of drama and subtle humor that makes an interesting read…
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