The Second Choice
Songbyrde publications, 2011
Pages 287 / Price Rs330
The case of a remarried couple
Whenever I set out to write a book review, there is this familiar feeling that engulfs me - the known sensation of a hot cup of coffee besides my table, the same old faithful pen, my loyal cushion for backrest, a blank page and a few fallow thoughts. Reading a book can be a thoroughly engaging and engrossing exercise, and as I savor with joy the many pages that flit by, every scene, every character comes alive mentally, with it being almost visual. This especially happens when one does not just mechanically flip pages; but does so with a sense of anticipation that the black ink on plain white paper exudes. There are some books that one reads, finishes reading and remembers in snippets. Then, some books make one laugh and cry; and are then tucked safely in a forgotten corner of their bookshelf. Few books; however, live on to you; right from the time one reads the first page; and make one pick them from time to time from corners of the bookshelf. This is what Lakshmi Menon’s first English novel in offering does; its poignancy wants you to take pleasure in it at regular intervals.
When a subject like remarriage is dealt with, it has to be done with immense sensitivity and finesse in portraying the feelings of characters, and the author manages to do so. Writing short stories is quite different from penning a novel, in which there is more ‘space’ in the true sense of it for increasing thematic paradigms and exploring each character in depth. A major part of the plot focuses on life after remarriage for both - Pavithra and Venu, the protagonists and their subsequent dealing with their children, society and most importantly, each other.
This time she left everything to her father’s choice. She wanted it that way. After all, she had no sweet dreams like the last time. This marriage was purely a matter of necessity to live. If she had a good career of her own she wouldn’t have agreed to this marriage at all. There was no room for another man in her life now.
Throughout the novel, stereotypes - particularly those with reference to a woman - are reinforced. Venu’s wife Soumya is bedridden with a serious ailment that she got afflicted with after the birth of their daughter, Indu. She is termed an ‘invalid’ by society as she is relegated to one corner of the bed, immobile. As societal ideology would have it, responsibilities of her daughter and husband have to be taken; and hence Venu is left with no other choice, but has to remarry. Even his wife Soumya seems to suggest that he remarry; since she has no hope of getting well soon and awaits an almost silent death. Hopelessness is not an easy emotion to portray; and both the women in the novel undergo severe pangs of feeling vacant.
It is always said that it is important to contextualize any work one reviews in a cultural and historical framework. The author projects to us through a glimpse of her book; what seems to be the early nineties. Again, it is true that not everyone needs feminism, because the term in itself can have manifested meanings that vary according to circumstance. The two women in the novel, Soumya and Pavithra seem to echo the same sentiment. The remarriage is built on what one can call a collected consciousness; a realization for need of dependence for fixed ‘man roles’ and ‘woman roles’. These ideological constraints can be a dampener in the novel, though the given sets of relationships work just fine in the given structure they are in. Pavithra does the domestic responsibilities, where as the age old notion of the husband being the protector is articulated by Venu. Pavithra, on the other hand, lost her husband Anand at a young age; and to make matters worse is not educated enough to get a job to earn her livelihood.
One captivating instance in the novel is the depiction of neighbors and their attitude towards the ‘new woman’ in Venu’s life. Intriguingly, these negative connotations for her are done by women. It can be disheartening to know that a woman can harbour negative emotions towards another woman without knowing her. Pavithra is often looked at as an immoral, almost dubious faced woman by the neighbors, particularly women. Also, what makes Menon enduring as a writer is the fact that - if on one hand, she portrays a wicked woman like Vasanthi; there are also women like Mrs. Joshi who are symbolic of great humaneness and care.
The complexities of Indu’s refusal to accept her ‘new mother’ and the depression of Anu; Pavithra's daughter are very well expressed in the middle of the novel. The book starts on a promising note, with a strong image of Anu resting in Pavithra’s lap and her reminiscence of her husband Anand in flashes. One feels appalled at her condition when instances of her late husband are portrayed.
Menon educates the character of Pavithra later in the novel; after her remarriage, which adds self worth to her to be able to find a job. As the stereotypes may have it, there have been questions raised, since times immemorial about a woman’s ‘balance-act’ of household responsibilities and her daughters. Venu is not the supportive husband here, unfortunately; and demands, commands and even accuses her of not taking interest in household chores.
With the newly acquired courage, she faced Venu the next day and told him her decision to continue her job. It was a rude shock to him. He had expected her to leave the job, for the sake of Anu’s studies at least. He remained in complete silence the whole day showing his dislike of her decision. That was his way of showing his protest.
Menon’s novel does not have a tight structure in its entity; but is firm, and moves you at some points, and makes you smile at other moments. The city of Bengaluru is described when it was Bangalore; many years ago. As they say, it is not always about unraveling the core or central theme, but about the certain scenes, characters and instances that stay till the end. Menon’s
The Second Choice has several of them.
Later in the novel, which utilizes several postmodern concerns like foreshadowing and flashback techniques, we learn that Anu is married young; and Pavithra’s stepdaughter becomes a doctor. This happens through the efforts of Pavithra; whom she calls ‘Mummy’.
All in all, the novel has instances where Pavithra is insulted, hurt and bitter. Her father settles her into a second match, and life never remains the same. She is a symbol of tolerance, understanding and sensitivity. For most of the part in the novel, her feelings remain to herself, and she does not confide overtly in anyone. The author also seems to suggest that physical intimacy is important in the relationship of husband-wife, without which marriage remains incomplete.
I would not like to reveal the end; but it is, in one word: liberating and also makes us realize the love Pavithra still has for her late husband. The book is a must read for its sheer simplicity and profound grace, though it could do with a little tighter editing. One must accolade Lakshmi Menon for handling a sensitive subject with dexterity and deftness. Here is looking forward for more from the author, a second book in the offering perhaps.