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Lamps in the Whirlpool.

First the appendix, which provides a crisp and informative introduction to the Tamil novelist, her commitment to the cause of the downtrodden and the exploited (the tribals, fisherfolk) and her championing of the cause of women. Rajam Krishnan is no aggressive feminist, but she has no patience with any woman who wears the badge of suffering triumphantly just to be crowned a perfect "traditional" woman. Never one to mince words, Rajam writes Tamil in a style that flows like an unstoppable flood, and the action-rich story helps achieve a dramatic projection of the problem at hand, thereby gaining the reader's emotional involvement.

Lamps in the Whirlpool was originally published as Suzhalil Mithakkum Deepangal in 1987. The story is a straightforward one. Girija, an "ideal" housewife with grown-up children, leaves home to spend a few days in Haridwar, for she badly wants a change from her unappreciative husband, her vulturelike mother-in-law, and genteel domestic slavery. When she returns home, her entry is barred, for she has broken the rules of middle-class morality and lowered the prestige of the husband. Even the mother-in-law, herself a woman of course, is unsympathetic, and that is the greater tragedy of the Indian scene. The old lady encourages her son: "The milk is spilt and nothing can be done about it. Let her take her belongings and leave."

Is not a woman then an individual? Girija had received a good education and had even worked for a while. But marriage had caged her. Rajam's heroine will not wear sackcloth and ashes. She would rather rebuild her life outside. No doubt it will be an arduous process, and perhaps Girija and her like who assert their individuality are but lamps in the whirlpool of a caste- and custom-ridden society. But as long as there is life, there is hope. In any case, Rajam has used the word mithakkum (floats) in her original title, which is a positive statement. Ratna, Girija, and their ilk do not symbolize the helplessness of the lamps in the whirlpool but rather the purposeful "floating" of the lamps against all odds.

Upon a superficial reading of the novel, Girija might seem to be more a type than a character: the frustrated woman caught in the angst of middle-age with a husband who is the very image of male egoism, a woman who feels trapped because her unmarried daughters may need her presence in the home. Definitely, the house is typical of India's urban middle class, which is controlled by a patriarchal system that considers "female independent self-hood" as unnecessary and unhealthy. Samu, the mother-in-law, and Roja mami are also types, representing a social truth; but Girija's journey to selfhood is also a contemporary fact.

Rajam Krishnan's Indian version of feminism is made clear by her positing the case of the motherless Runo from a rich family. Neglected by her drunken father, she takes to drugs and sex and commits suicide. Will Girija's daughters end up like that? Rajam then presents the catalytic agent of the novel, Ratna. Here is Rajam's ideal, the "new woman": well educated, full of self-control, mincing no words, ready to help and to engage herself in purposeful action. Lamps in the Whirlpool is a well-wrought novel translated into expressive English, a triumph for both the novelist and the translators.

Prema Nandakumar Srirangam, India
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Author:Nandakumar, Prema
Publication:World Literature Today
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 1997
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