When Men THINK They’re ‘Modern’, They’re Often At Their Patriarchal Worst!

One is left wondering about who is worse- the men who make no excuses about being patriarchs, or the so called progressive men who still want to control their wives and daughters?

“My name, Venkatramana, so richly intoned by the teachers at my village school, lost the flick of the tongue at its end in the mouths of my north Indian friends at engineering college and became Venkatraman. It then dwindled to Venkat among colleagues. If I had spent some time in the United States, I am sure I would have turned into a Venky. Perhaps the transformation of my name says something about the path I have travelled, and my easy acceptance of it something about the firmness of my convictions.”

Sakina’s Kiss, by Vivek Shanbhag, is primarily the story of Venkat- his past and the present, the world he was brought up in and the world he is now a part of. In a lot of ways, the story of Venkat’s name sums up the man himself. He is a man of contradictions which he just cannot see. He considers himself very progressive and modern, yet cannot rise above the patriarchal mindset in which he was raised. He fights with his wife, Viji,  because he wants to send his daughter to an elite, prestigious school where she can develop a social circle that will set her up for life, yet does all he can to curb her freedom.

While the story is set primarily in a two bedroom flat in preset day Bangalore, Venkat and Viji physically travel to his native village outside the mobile network from where their daughter Rekha has “disappeared”. They also travel back in time in Venkat’s description of his childhood where his mild mannered uncle, in the guise of helping them, cheats Venkat’s mother and her brother of their ancestral property. This uncle grows up to be a rather mysterious figure who was on the run from the police for his Naxalite leanings and eventually disappeared. Many years later, Venkat’s daughter, Rekha, sets out on a quest to find out more about him.

The book moves seamlessly from the personal to the political

Of how politics of nationalism and misogyny are interlinked. Middle aged people who spent their youth obeying their parents expect the same from their children and feel cheated when it is withheld. The book expertly shows how politicians exploit this vulnerability to further their objective.

In the pivotal scene, Venkat, Viji and Rekha are watching a politician on TV speak about how women should dress, and linking that to Indian culture-

It astonishes me now to think of how the exchanges between the three of us escalated from there.
Viji was initially silent, but later came down on Rekha’s side. There was nothing new to any of it. at some point, Rekha said, “Appa, why aren’t you saying anything?”
“What is there to say, I am just watching quietly.”
“I know why you are quiet…. You support him, that’s’ why.”
“…. we should look at the context in which he said those things…”
“So you agree with what he said?”
“… If I agreed with him, would I last another minute in this house?”
“So we are the only reason you don’t support him? What would you do left to yourself?”
“You won’t understand this now, pay attention to your studies and finish college. you can think about politics later.”

This is a scene played out in many households, with the ‘head of the household’ trying his best to assert his authority, and the women resenting how men want to trample on them. Venkat cannot understand how his wife and daughter have become strangers to him, and the alienation he feels only drives them further apart.

A focus on the unequal distribution of labour in an average Indian home

The greatest merit of the book is in its description of the unequal distribution of labour in double income households, and of how the male partner often weaponises the vulnerability of the female to feel good about himself.

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Venkat as the narrator, for instance, is quite proud of the fact that he can brew a cup of tea, and talks of it often to prove how progressive he is. However, it is Viji who cooks all the meals despite being an IT professional with a full-time job herself.

Instead of taking on some of the kitchen chores himself (or at least appreciating the work she does), Venkat periodically assuages his ego by suggesting they get a cook, and he implies that by rejecting his offer, Viji chooses to take on the burden of cooking. Clearly he has no intention of making the effort to find out why Viji doesn’t want a cook- she would remain responsible for training the cook, giving instructions, keeping track of the provisions, preventing pilferage, not being able to control the amount of oil and spices, and for cooking at short notice when the cook takes a day off- and instead uses her rejection of the offer to coronate himself as a empathetic man married to a woman who doesn’t appreciate his goodness.

I remain amazed at the fact that it is a man who created such a nuanced patriarchal character.

Men expect servitude as their right

Venkat is not the only man who thinks he is “modern”, but expects servitude as his right.

In the village, we meet Suresh who considers himself a revolutionary journalist, but is quite content keeping his beautiful wife at home making hot dosas for guests and ensuring his meals are served at exactly the right temperature. While Suresh has no qualms about sending Rekha off in search of a story, one wonders if he would similarly allow his own daughter to travel in the hinterlands without an escort.

One is left wondering about who is worse- the men who make no excuses about being patriarchs, or the so called progressive men who still want to control their wives and daughters?

Like in Vivek Shanbhag’s previous book, Ghachar Ghochar, in Sakinas’ Kiss too, the translation by Srinath Perur is almost invisible. The language, including the dialogues, is the language of the worlds that the characters inhabit, and if you didn’t know that it was translated from the Kannada, you would not find it hard to believe that it was written in colloquial English. More importantly, the translation does not reveal anything that the author doesn’t want revealed; there is no attempt to answer questions; instead a re-read only throws more questions at the reader.

Ghachar Ghochar was a sleeper hit, which continues to be read and discussed even seven years after the publication of the English translation. Sakina’s Kiss with its searing portrayal of middle class India will be no different.

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Image source: a still from The Great Indian Kitchen and Book cover Amazon.

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About the Author

Natasha Ramarathnam

Natasha works in the development sector, where most of her experience has been in Education and Livelihoods. She is passionate about working towards gender equity, sustainability and positive climate action. And avid reader and occasional read more...

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