Note: I read this book as part of the Dumbledore’s Army Readathon challenge. You can find out more about it here.
My Summary: At age eleven, Kokila makes a decision to flee the marriage she was forced into and take up residence at Tella Meda, an ashram that offers refuge for people with no place left to turn to. There, she becomes a part of an ever-evolving family of women whose lives are bound together by their status as outcasts.
I have very conflicting feelings about this book. The women in it are all deeply flawed characters, which isn’t an issue, but some of their supposed flaws are only considered flaws by very sexist, colorist, ableist, etc. standards of evaluating women’s worth. Some of it is merely a reflection of the society they live in, but at times even the narrative itself endorses these kinds of judgments.
But beyond the vicious name-calling of “wh*re,” “b*tch,” and “sl*t,” you get the stories of complex women who are doing what they can to survive in a society that devalues women. Their flaws do not mean they are not sympathetic characters.
There is Kokila, who shuns the life of a wife, mother, and daughter-in-law without a full understanding of the long-term consequences.
There is Chetana, who is the cast-off daughter of a sex worker who must bear and try to overcome the social stigma of her mother’s profession.
There is Charvi, who is declared a guru by her father and thus forced to live a solitary life in accordance with the worshipful expectations of others.
There is Renuka, who is a widow and refuses to live with her sons and daughters-in-law, who judges everyone but also learns to be selfless.
And there are others, women from all walks of life, seeking shelter.
The events of the book span nearly five decades, from the 50s to 2000, so we get to see these women grow and mature and age. Told more as a series of anecdotes than a single tale, the stories explore the ironies and contradictions and hypocrisies of these women and their lives. They are all capable of both cruelty and condescension and solidarity and kindness toward one another. They protect and betray, they take and give, they help and hurt. No one is perfect, but everyone has some goodness in them.
Among the paradoxes and contradictions in the book is the ashram’s reputation. It is at once respected and disdained. Respected because it is inhabited by a woman who is supposedly touched by the gods but disdained because only the “lowest” women of society take shelter there.
Then there’s the character of Ramanandam, Charvi’s father, who is a feminist in theory but much less so in practice. And Vineetha Raghavan, an engineer who calls herself a feminist but is extremely classist and disdainful toward poor, uneducated women. Charvi is supposed to have the demeanor and temperament of a goddess detached from mundane and petty mortal concerns, ever patient and generous, and even comes to believe herself divine, but she also has a bit of a bitter, hateful current running through her, beneath the serene surface. And even as the women of Tella Meda decry the way some mothers treat their children and deny their agency and care only for “propriety” but not love, when they become mothers themselves, they unwittingly reproduce that kind of mentality.
One of the things I appreciated about the book was how honest it was. Menstruation, lust, and sex are not glossed over or hidden away in denial. Likewise, the abuse, exploitation, and objectification of women by men are addressed and not given a pass. The men who do horrible things are criticized and get their due in time.
Although the ashram is very sequestered from the rest of the world, it also evolves alongside India with its social and political changes. Technology starts to appear, the younger generations have more options for social advancement, and so on. Grounding the stories in the broader context of history makes them all the more realistic and compelling.
Recommendation: I think I’ll say read at your own risk, with content/trigger warnings for abuse, alcoholism, misogyny, whorephobia, body-shaming, colorism, and a relationship between a 20-something and 60-something-year-old.