Manjula Padmanabhan, born in 1953, in Delhi, is an artist and an author. Her famous plays include Harvest which won the prestigious Onassis Award for Theater in 1997 and Hidden Fires. Her comic cartoon strips have appeared in the Pioneer and the Sunday Observer. She has illustrated twenty-four books for children. She has written several novels and stories for children. Her books include Double Talk, Hot Death, Cold Soup, This is Suki!, Kleptomania and her autobiographical novel Getting There. Escape (2008) is her first novel for adults and is one of the few works of modern Indian science fiction. According to Prof B Parvathi, “Manjula Padmanabhan belongs to that generation of Indian women writers in English who have boldly stepped out of conventions that define respectability to address issues of gender, woman, her body and its behavior, its exploitation in a family and social setting… Manjula Padmanabhan has opened a fresh dialogue on a new angle of feminist concerns” (1).
Manjula Padmanabhan’s powerful novel Escape makes for a highly significant study that can explore in depth the socio-cultural, political, psychological, intellectual, emotional, spiritual and other aspects related to the imbalance in the sex-ratio. The main context of the book is the declining sex-ratio in India that is mainly the result of the strong social bias against the girl child and the gross misuse of the cheap and widely available technology of sex-determination for female foeticide. According to the 2011 census, India’s current child sex ratio is 914 females per 1000 males, which is the lowest since the 1961 census. Added to this sharp drop is the fact that the fall in the child sex ratio in rural areas is around four times that in urban areas (2). Padmanabhan herself says about her novel, “In the case of Escape, the idea presented itself originally as a newspaper ‘middle’ which would take the form of a page from the diary of the last Indian woman left alive… I kept thinking that despite all the positive stuff going on, it seemed more likely that women – Indian women anyway - appeared to be on the decline. So that was the context… around 2006 I began to think of turning that idea into a novel” (3). The novelist presents a horrifying vision of the future where women have been completely exterminated. The novel combines adventure, romance, philosophy, human feelings and sexuality, fantasy and science fiction to give a strong warning about the unimaginable terrors that humanity would have to face if the violence against women is allowed to continue unabated. In her review of Escape, Giti Chandra writes, “The premise in Escape is simple: technology and a phobia of women have combined to create a country (clearly marked as India by the cultural detailing of clothes, food etc.) in which all females have been exterminated and a ruling class of cloned Generals keep a… grip of surveillance on the populace. Women are no longer needed for reproduction since men can clone themselves whenever they wish. They are not required for sex as homosexuality has replaced heterosexuality as the norm” (4).
Escape is set in a country without name. But there are enough hints to convey that the novelist is speaking of India. This is a land that has undergone great changes and is ruled by a group of military Generals who are clones of each other. They control every inch of the land and electronically monitor the lives of the citizens with the help of artificially created human-robots called Drones and vicious bands of soldiers called Boyz. It is a scientifically much advanced civilization but there is no room for democracy or political opposition. Great advances have been made with the help of nuclear power and technology but the land, water and air and other natural resources as also the ecosystem of the nation have been ravaged by pollution. But the most significant feature is the fact that women are hated by the ruling Generals and are called ‘the Vermin Tribe’. In fact women have been totally exterminated and the species of women is now extinct. Even words or pictures or symbols relating to women are banned by the laws. One family however has secretly preserved its daughter –a young girl named Meiji. Meiji, the only surviving woman in the land, as she grows into puberty, becomes a cause of anxiety for her three uncles. Her third uncle Youngest flees with Meiji in disguise and they embark on a long and dangerous journey across the land so that Meiji can leave her nation and save her life.
The novel opens on a note of terrible fear and secrecy. Those who protect Meiji know they are taking a great risk. Meiji is always dressed as a boy or covered in veils in public. She is unaware of her own sex. We find a direct parallel of this in India, where societal pressure to bear a male child forces many mothers to abort or secretly abandon their female offspring. The lack of women leads to a desperate situation among normal young men who are ready to sacrifice anything for the sake of female companionship. Meiji’s suitors are brought under high secrecy, blindfolded, kept under surveillance and are shown only a glimpse of the girl as her Uncles fear the worst if the suitors reveal the truth to the Generals. Here, we are reminded of the social and psychological problems facing several communities particularly in North India where continued female infanticide and foeticide has resulted in such a huge gap in the sex-ratio that there are no brides available for men of marriageable age.
Meiji who is a prisoner since birth struggles with her emotions and her loneliness. She does not know of the existence of an outside world. She has been given hormone suppressants to retard her normal growth and even at the age of sixteen looks like a child. As she grows into teenage and adulthood, the changes within her mind and body bewilder her for she does not know what it is to be a woman. She has seen only men in her life – her three uncles. Her three uncles debate over whether it would be safe to tell her who she really is. Again, the reader is reminded of our traditional society where the first form of violence against women is in the denial of knowledge and freedom, denial of self-awareness, denial of the right to form their own destinies and shape their own lives. It is the man or the male-dominated system that decides the fate of the female.
Manjula Padmanabhan next focuses on the State, the ruling class and indirectly satirizes the rulers of the present. In her novel, the Generals who rule are absolute dictators, clones without feeling or conscience, who speak and think simultaneously, who regenerate themselves without end. No form of freedom or education is allowed to private citizens. ‘Perfect ignorance opens the path to perfect obedience’ (p 33) - is the motto of the Generals. The entire machinery of the State is managed by robotic drones and mindless soldiers who are trained only to follow commands. The logic of the Generals behind the extermination of women is this: “Females are driven by biological imperatives that lead them to compete for breeding rights. Whereas collectives breed cooperatively. In order to control breeding technology and to establish the collective ethic we had to eliminate them” (p 271). Both Nature and women are visualized as a threat by the ruling dispensation. Today, in India, the role of the government agencies especially the police machinery in safeguarding women’s rights and curbing violence against women needs to be seriously re-examined. How effective is the implementation of the law against pre-natal sex-determination? Are politicians and parliamentarians ready to overcome their patriarchal mindsets and allow the passage of the Women’s Reservation Bill, which has been stalled on petty grounds? Is the State machinery really supportive of women’s rights? The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) predicted that the growth rate of crimes against women would be higher than the population growth rate by 2010 (5).
Manjula Padmanabhan views the State as an institution wherein both men and women are enslaved at a deeper level and are at the mercy of an elitist patriarchal regime. We need to introspect if the selfish, corrupt and ruthless tendencies of the male leaders feel threatened by the ethically stronger side of women. Nature too is seen as an enemy to be subdued and exploited by male-dominated multinational industrial and capitalist syndicates. Escape is filled with references to eco-feminist concerns, seeking to explore how both women and Nature are systematically destroyed by the power-hungry elite.
Meiji’s long journey to safety brings to light the horror of a world without women. In an instant Meiji’s innocence ends. She is separated from her beloved uncles and has to undertake a harrowing journey. She does not know why she is in danger or why she has to escape or where she has to escape to. The land without women is a horrible sight to behold, with men of all ages wandering about like ghosts. Reproduction is done by cloning. The few men of normal birth would soon die. The land would be filled with clones without minds or souls of their own. Those men who lived in the era when women still existed, long for their past and somehow secretly communicate to the new generation that there was once a beautiful thing called ‘woman.’ These older men can always sense something special about Meiji though she is in heavy disguise as a man. Meiji’s uncle has a tough time protecting her from men prowling around her ready to exploit her at the slightest chance. There is no joy or fertility in the barren land. Men suffer from the effects of nuclear radiation. All of them live in a kind of half-conscious state unaware of the reality or the world outside their country. The United Nations has deleted the name of the country from its records for the most extreme crimes against humanity. The world has condemned and rejected all the great achievements of the country and has cut off all communication with it.
Gradually Meiji realizes who she really is, and how precious she is, as the last surviving member of her species. She comes to know what a ‘woman’ is. Even as she struggles to control the powerful forces within her body, she hears horrible tales of how women were killed by the Generals - foetuses, infants, children, young women- no one was spared. The extermination of women is perhaps the acceptance of the fact that the women were not allowed to survive because their minds could not be controlled. In one of the many manuals written by the Generals to guide the citizens, there is this quotation: “The drones are what the Vermin Tribe (women) should have been: servile, dumb and deaf” (p 237). Meiji also comes to know that her own mother had publicly immolated herself in order to divert the attentions of the Generals from little Meiji. She is angry with her mother for leaving her alone in a male world. Meiji realizes that her most powerful weapon is her mind, her knowledge of the self and the world around. She vows to keep on fighting for survival as a vital link in the precious chain of life.
Manjula Padmanabhan’s novel focuses on the simultaneous destruction of Woman and Nature. Woman is closer to Mother Nature because of her role in giving birth to and nurturing new life. There is a strong parallel in the attempt of man to colonise and enslave the female body and mind and in the attempt of man to dominate and exploit Nature. The landscape in the novel is dominated by male-controlled industrialization, technology and science that have turned the country into a radioactive wasteland. If we study this situation in the modern context, we find that the globally dominant Western culture based on technological advancement and capitalist ambitions has devalued both motherhood and Nature. In her article titled “Ecofeminism in India : Disappearing Daughters in Padmanabhan’s Escape,” Rupali Palodkar writes , “In Indian society, the ownership of women’s body and sexuality and that of land (nature)has continued to vest with men since ancient times. Of all places in the world, it is in India that sex-selective abortions are practiced on a wide-scale, especially in the northern part of the country… There is a need to find an alternative to men’s exploitation of the earth… and to discover an ecologically sound way of life that would not threaten the existence either of the earth or of women. That is why women writers like Manjula Padmanabhan are turning to ecofeminist thinking and are writing about the consequences of degradation of nature and woman” (6).
In the modern world, feminism may be broadly said to have passed through three stages- the liberal stage when the focus was on demanding equal political and economic rights for women, the radical stage when the focus was on demanding equal social rights with men, and the post-modernist or humanistic stage where the focus is on universal feminism that tries to look at both men and women as human beings who deserve to live with freedom and dignity. Escape belongs to those works of literature that contribute to the attempt to help women to achieve self-actualization.
Manjula Padmanabhan has tried to create self-realisation among women which is the first step towards ending violence against women. She gives voice to the marginalized women of a patriarchal society. Such writings reflect, actively engage with, and attempt to change the pressing social, political and economic realities of the times that act as instruments to perpetuate the violent exploitation of women. The novel initiates a painful process of thinking about those whose voices are silenced and stands out as a beacon of light and hope for them. However, Padmanabhan herself says that she has never written purely as a ‘woman’ or as a ‘feminist’ (7). Her writings are based on a broad and universal humanism. Like the great British novelist Virginia Woolf, she realizes that ‘gender-roles’ are socially constructed and enslave both men and women for the benefit of those who control wealth and power in society. Such humanist literature ultimately crosses boundaries of time and space. Virginia Woolf famously declared, ‘I have no country...’ The condition of women has been more or less the same everywhere and they have been subjected to varied forms of violence and slavery in every nation.
1. Parvathi, B. “Critiquing Manjula Padmanabhan’s Escape.” The Critical Endeavour, Vol.15, No. II, June 2009. 136-147.
2. “Special Supplement-2011: At a Glance – India,” Competition Success Review, January 2012. Issue 86.
3. Padmanabhan, Manjula. “Q&A with Manjula Padmanabhan,” Dhvani, 7 Nov 2008. (Qtd. in “Ecofeminism in India: Disappearing Daughters in Padmanabhan’s Escape” by Rupali Palodkar, The Quest, Vol.25, No.1, June 2011. 55-61).
4. Chandra, Giti. “Desire Unfulfilled” (Review of Escape). Biblio: A Review of books, 13.11-12, Nov-Dec, 2008. 12.
5. “Crime in India, 2002,” NCRB, Swayam-Leaflet. Web. 15 Feb, 2012.
6. Palodkar, Rupali. “Ecofeminism in India: Disappearing Daughters in Padmanabhan’s Escape,” The Quest, Vol.25, No.1, June 2011. 55-61.
7. Padmanabhan, Manjula. (To AM Kulkarni), Dhvani, 26 Jan 2009. (Qtd. in “Ecofeminism in India: Disappearing Daughters in Padmanabhan’s Escape” by Rupali Palodkar, The Quest, Vol.25, No.1, June 2011. 55-61).
Padmanabhan, Manjula. Escape. New Delhi: Picador India, 2008. (All quotations are from this edition.)