There could be no better timing than this to be writing the book review for a book by Krishna Sobti. The 2017 Gyanpith Award winner, also known as the grande dame of Hindi Literature.
The book I am reviewing here is To hell with you Mitro. This book caused an uproar upon its publication owing to its language which is sexually explicit. Krishna Sobti wrote at a time when desires of women were to be suppressed and she did not openly express her desires. In Indian patriarchy, women have been given stereotypical roles as a mother, wife, mistresses or sex-object which man uses to gratify sexual appetite. Sobti compels us to rethink the status quo through her strong and vocal female characters. Articulating provocative issues in her novels, she yanks society out of its comfort zones.
To Hell with You Mitro (Mitro Marjani) is the story of Sumitravanti, nicknamed as Mitro, the unstoppable daughter-in-law of the Gurudas household. Her mother-in-law aptly describes Mitro’s character in few words, “When she’s good, she’s better than the best. When she’s bad, she’s worse than the worst. If in a good mood Mitro is your friend and all her belongings are at your feet. At other times, she becomes so estranged that she spits on her husband. ” Mitro thus is an expression of Sobti’s uninhibited portrayal of female sexuality. She is what can be called physicality incarnated. She defies the set norms by expressing unequivocally her sexual desires and pangs. Her struggle is against the patriarchal structure. The basic honesty of her nature allows her to face herself and all she has believed in as unflinchingly as she faces her husband’s thrashing and mother-in-laws awed remonstrations. What makes Mitro special is her indomitable spirit. Even though towards the end she realizes the hollowness of her mother’s existence outside family, she refuses to buckle down under the patriarchal setup.
One of the basic theme of To Hell with You Mitro is that any positive change in the position of women cannot be brought about without addressing their position within family. Apart from being a set of kinship relations and household structures, family needs to be viewed as a power structure, maintained by patriarchy, through which a particular set of household and gender relationships are given meaning. The women are shown as subservient and at best a mute spectator to the happenings around them.
Thus, Sobti has shown an ideological dimension of family. An ideology which is primarily patriarchal in nature, according to which there are preordained roles of men and women in family and outside it. This ideology of family describes and creates separate spheres of work for men and women. The unequal gender relations are valued not only by male members of the family but females, conditioned in patriarchy also support these norms with full devotion.
It is with the character of Mitro that Sobti using the character as a mouthpiece to deconstruct patriarchal norms and conventions. Mitro’s resistance against the repressive forces of patriarchy manifests itself in her transgressions. When she feels dissatisfied with her husband, leaving behind the age old sentiments of the much adored Sati and Savitri ,she fancies about her escapades with males other than her husband.
Unlike her mother-in-law and elder sister-in-law, Mitro is not of the type of women who
feels content in performing subservient roles to their husbands thinking that this is what they are meant for. Her thoughts, actions, behavior are not even least controlled by the male. And what is more attractive in this bold diva is that she is fully aware of her physical charms. She thinks that she can win over any man as long as she has a beautiful,
attractive body. Whenever and wherever she feels suffocated, she raises her voice, but never felt pathetic about her being a woman. For her there is no difference being a man or woman. She views both as equal, no one subordinate to other or dominant over other.
Mitro was met with a lot of agitation by the society that ‘expects young women to safeguard their sexual reputation and avoid being labeled as sexually promiscuous, while young men had to demonstrate their sexual reputation in order to enhance their standing with their masculine peer group’. But Mitro is open about her sexual longings. Her indomitable spirit and frank, open expression of her insatiable sexual urge is something totally unbecoming of a middle class married woman. Because of her openness in speech, she becomes the target of criticism by the members of her family. Her husband also finds her ways wanton and wild.
The high point is towards the end when Mitro visits her mother’s place and arranges for
sexual escapades with one of her mother’s clients in the very presence of her husband in the same house. Mitro realizes the hollowness of her mother’s existence outside family when her mother reveals her that now no one visits her mother and thus she feels terribly lonely. Now the same husband she cursed day in and day out now appears to her as a treasure she cannot afford to lose. By making a character like Mitro understand the importance of family life, Sobti perhaps reaffirms her faith in the institutions of family and marriage which irrespective of their restrictions, seem to her important and therefore must be preserved.
In this way in To Hell with You Mitro, on one hand Krishna Sobti made the other daughter in laws and the sons as mouthpiece of patriarchal norms and convention while on the other hand with Mitro she has given an antidote to patriarchy. Mitro’s family members reiterate the codes of patriarchy and for Mitro it is her chief task to dismiss these codes. She never follows patriarchal standards, whether it is in her speech, act, thinking or behavior
Patriarchy even today demands women to be silent, submissive, unselfish, timid, conventional, and with no display of sexual desires; contrary to all this Mitro is loudmouthed, domineering, bold, frank, unconventional, and openly displays her sexual desires. Towards the end she comes to realize the worth of familial and social norms but for her these norms also have meaning after personal individuality only. She understands the value of being virtuous and chaste , but that is not even a slight hint that she will bow meekly to patriarchy. There is no change in her even towards the end. She remains as vocal and expressive even in the end as she was in the beginning. All that changes is that she accepts the significance of following societal norms which are essential for a morally upright society, but this is not at the cost of losing her own individuality.
Nothing much has changed since then. Till date the desires of women are repressed and if a woman openly speaks about her sexual exploits or even her desires, she is easily labeled as promiscuous. The tongues start wagging and she stripped off her dignity and respect, leaving her cold in the dark society. Even an attempt towards the same is thwarted. For eg: Lipstick under my burkha, is a movie that speaks about how the desires and dreams of women are licensed by the menfolk. Women seem to have no say over their own bodies when rape in marriage is normal. Thus, Mitro is an apt read in today’s times, when women need not hide their sexuality under a burkha.