"The protagonist is caged and handcuffed in the clutches of honour and ideals - virtues which females are expected to embody and wear like their jewels," writes Kaushikee Sharma .
“For even as love crowns you so shall he crucify you. Even as he is for your growth so is he for your pruning.”
- Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet
One of my professors once remarked, “love is the most abused emotion in the world, yet the most sought after.” Her realist approach might sound pessimistic to some, but it is undeniably intriguing. Love in its all forms and variations is an emotion we all yearn for; the lack of it makes us miserable and empty while the excess of it chokes us. But can love operate or function in its entirety without the complexities of power, gender, and society?
For the Love of a Man presents a familiar yet unique perspective on the questions of love, gender, patriarchy, and autonomy. The protagonist is caged and handcuffed in the clutches of honour and ideals - virtues which females are expected to embody and wear like their jewels. An autobiographical fiction, it is the story of a woman named Amrita whose life progresses like a rollercoaster. Her journey is one of foibles and oppression, where the forked path enhances her individuality, her thought process, and her autonomy. She is the chattel of her father, who marries her off without her consent only to make her life unbearable. Her husband fails to provide her warmth, comfort, companionship and even respect which are surprisingly the very notions that a marriage promises. To irrigate the drought in her life, she gives in to the advances of a lover who beguiles her in a myriad of tricks and emotional exhaustion. And then, when her life fails to provide her a sense of balance and stability, she flees to the Himalayas to fathom where exactly the solution lies.
The author, Amrinder Bajaj, deftly creates characters that are victims of ignorance and shallow concepts of society. With Amrita, Bajaj tries to dismantle the hypocritical norms of society by making her deflate the stereotype of a ‘ghar ki izzat.’ The theme of marriage (both love and arranged) along with its complexities is explored via a network of relationships where the writer might be hinting that love marriage has the upper hand. Time and again Amrita remembers, or rather regrets, her inability to confess her love in front of her parents, and more than anything else being tied up in a loveless marriage. This set up of an unfulfilled marriage leaves a deep void in her allowing her to feel shaken up by her lover’s “reappearance,” which shows that the essence of love in marriage and in life is irreplaceable. The issue of feminism is explored in great depth with a special emphasis on the cultural underpinnings of the Indian landscape. Through Amrita we discover the patriarchal shifts in her life, first at her home and then at her husband’s home where females play an equal role in dispensing patriarchal ideals. This is evident when her mother says to her mother-in-law, “slap her if she disobeys you.” But we also discover the beautiful camaraderie shared by females against the patriarchal exploits when Lata, one of Amrita’s batchmates, teaches a quick lesson to a doctor exploiting Amrita in the guise of a medical check up.
As beauty is a contested notion in society, it was a bit troubling to see Bajaj working on the normative stereotype of an unattractive female character. She is described as a “short-statured, mousy girl with stained teeth and a sallow complexion.” Such tropes are used to disqualify her as a prospective bride for an attractive groom, and yet they also qualify her as a prospective bride for a groom with an abnormal organ. It seems as if both the male and the female have to compromise because they lack the essentials.
But what about the male characters in the novel? Bajaj is mindful to portray characters that reveal the deep penetration of patriarchy, and how they become the very agents of the venom which is eating them up. They are a combination of toxic masculinity and sensitivity. They hurl abuses and physically assault, but they also cry at their helplessness and show sensitivity at times. When their elder son is admitted to the hospital after an accident, MS, the husband, breaks down immediately though the situation demands a stereotypical strong man. Rajan (Amrita’s lover) too breaks down in front of her when his father dies. Yet, they retain the image of a pathetic figure, depicting how pusillanimous the patriarchy is in society. As one of the characters remarks, “eh to oh gal hui na, jhak marke gu khan.” The narrator later gets a “general drift” of the words spoken by him: “you are no better than a bitch on heat with a bunch of street dogs sniffing at her. If it is a dog you want, why not my son? At least he is faithful.”
Set in the backdrop of twentieth-century India, Bajaj coalesces the social upheavals of that time and its effect on the domestic, private and professional lives of the people in a truly rare account. She astutely tackles the issue of women and their freedom which is compromised in the name of tradition; whereas some women were breaking stereotypes, the protagonist suffered a harsh time while exercising her rights and freedom. But she is not made to succumb to the pressures, and instead finds her way to joy, living life in all its shades and hues.
Another remarkable hallmark of the book is its amalgamation of medical life and conditions in the lives of the characters. As Amrita is a gynaecologist, much like Bajaj, we get to understand the medical landscape, especially the gynaecological one which is quite rare. This medical infusion which is an extension of the author’s profession deftly creates an engrossing narrative where the reader flips pages to find out if the artificial insemination will work or not, which will perhaps directly or indirectly affect Amrita’s life.
Brimming with beautiful poetry, an impeccable narrative and a tinge of humour, For the Love of a Man is a must-read to understand the casualties of love, truth, sacrifice, and more than anything else, that love comes in different shades and colours; it is up to us which one to choose. While there have indeed been many works of literature which deal with the concept of love, its over bearings, and its repercussions on the psychological, social, and individual levels, Bajaj’s work breaks from the path. It provides an array of hope and a solution to the casualty of love and individuality without the least hint of giving a final judgement. As Gibran says “all these things shall love do unto you that you may know the secrets of your heart and in that knowledge become a fragment of Life’s heart.” Perhaps it is a complex task, but it is worth giving it a try; would you?
Kaushikee Sharma is an art enthusiast, illustrator, and a reader. She completed her Masters in English Literature from Delhi University. She has previously worked for the Jaipur Literature Festival as an assistant volunteer coordinator. Though her thoughts might be flawed, she thinks art affords the avenue to be flawed and accentuates the greatness that is life.