(Translated from Tamil by Vasantha Surya)
It was refreshing to read an overtly, unashamedly, unapologetically feminist novel by Indian feminist publisher Zubaan. Though Shashi Deshpande has a point when she says that she would prefer her novels be read as novels and not as feminist tracts (“why must I, each time I write a novel, present pictures of rebellion? Because I am a feminist? For God’s sake, I’m a novelist, I write novels, not feminist tracts” [Writing from the Margin and Other Essays, p. 159]), and though I see the value of feminist publishers like Zubaan trying to reach out to readers ambivalent about feminism by publishing a broad range of women’s writing, I still applaud this overtly feminist novel. The issues it raises are urgent, and if the only writers prepared to tackle them are feminist writers, publishers and readers should look beyond 2012 squeamishness about aligning with such a political stance and focus on what’s really important.
Birthright is ostensibly about sex-selective abortion in India, and of course, “sex-selective abortion” is itself a necessarily euphemistic term meaning the abortion of female foetuses (“female foeticide” is too problematic a term, though commonly used, as the implications of “foeticide” ally it with various religious right-wing groups, whether Indian, American, or whomever). The narrator of Birthright is Mano, a twenty-something year old doctor living in a small town in Tamil Nadu. A large part of her job involves scanning pregnant women, and aborting female foetuses, after the women don’t like what they discover. Mano is not ashamed of this fact, seeing it as an essential social service that will save the women from abuse from their husbands and in-laws, and save unborn females the pain of being a girl, and a woman, in a family and society that despises them. Whatever distaste Mano feels at this part of her job is translated into contempt for her patients:
“The delivery case was quite simple, no complications. No need to howl like that just for labour pains. Something else was making her howl. This was the second–the first was a girl. What was this one going to be? That was what the screaming was about. Meenatchi said the husband and the mother-in-law were waiting outside. When she screamed Ayyo! Amma! what she was really doing was trying to see if the wellsprings of compassion would open up for her. […]
‘A boy!’ announced Meenatchi.
The woman who’d just given birth to it stared in disbelief, then clutched at my hand and kissed it as though she’d gone crazy. ‘Thayee! You’re a goddess, Thayee!’ she gasped and began to sob.
Wearily I detached myself from the rejoicing taking place around me and went to wash my hands. The very sight of that frenzy and those happy tears was humiliating. The husband and mother-in-law were passing around lumps of sugar. I wanted to tear them to pieces that very instant.” (p. 7)
The same rejoicing husband had threatened to throw the wife out if she gave birth to another girl.
The other major theme of Birthright is female property inheritance in India. Mano is an only daughter, something that puts her in a precarious position within her family. Before the death of her mother, her father had threatened to remarry in the hopes of bearing a son. After her mother’s death, rumours circulate that her father will adopt a son and heir. Mano sees remaining unmarried as her only hope of inheriting her father’s house and business–if she were to marry, tradition would dictate that she go and live in her husband’s home, relinquishing any small right she had to her inheritance.
Neither of these issues is resolved satisfactorily in Birthright. This would not be a problem if they were deliberately left unresolved–how can a novelist hope to resolve them!? But the ending is rather bizarre and too-tidy. Nevertheless, this is an absorbing and memorable book, and one that gives feminist novels a good name.