When well-known women’s rights activist Vasanth Kannabiran was growing up in the 1950s, grandmothers and aunts shared many real-life stories about ‘wives, widows and whores’ with her. These seemingly disconnected anecdotes haunted Kannabiran, eventually revealing the pattern of women’s lived realities in the early twentieth century and inspiring her to write Pankaja, her debut novel.
In Pankaja, Kannabiran paints a vivid portrait of what it meant to be an upper-caste Hindu woman in India at the time. Pankaja’s life and the lives of her women friends and family members are all shaped by the institution of marriage; limited by the norm of wifely duty. Pankaja’s mother Rajamma faces undue criticism from society after she is widowed. Pankaja’s sister Pattamma, who is widowed at a young age is branded a bad omen and shunned at social occasions. When Kannamma, who belongs to a Brahmin family, ends her unhappy marriage and goes to live with a low-caste mridangam player, her family disowns her and the entire community condemns her. The individual stories of these women converge and diverge as they claim the right to their own lives.
Pankaja places family life under the microscope, presenting us with a vision of unflinching honesty. Laced with insights about marriage, widowhood and sexuality, it peels back history to reveal the inner workings of a casteist, patriarchal society. Wise and emotionally astute, this novel is an engrossing and moving read.