K.R. Meera’s latest novel, Jezebel, translated from Malayalam by Abhirami Girija Sriram and K.S. Bijukumar, is firmly rooted in the author’s passion for highlighting the way women find themselves perennially constrained by the limits that patriarchy imposes on them. Indeed, the work is a testament to the fact that even in this modern age, in India at least, patriarchal social norms wield an inordinate power over women and restrict their ability to exercise their agency and achieve self-determination.
Penguin Hamish Hamilton, 2022
Jezebel, a young doctor with a brilliant academic record, agrees to a prospective match after just one meeting and an email exchange with the man in question. The groom’s father seems obnoxious right from the outset, but despite some misgivings, Jezebel goes ahead with the wedding because she figures that she will have to get married anyway, and this man, Jerome George Marakkaran, seems decent enough and appears to share her liking for Kahlil Gibran.
But her colossal misjudgment becomes clear on her wedding night. Her husband turns out to be brutish and insensitive, and, in fact, loathes reading. He forces her to perform fellatio on him and shows no interest in her otherwise.
When she goes to her marital home, her father-in-law, George Jerome Marakkaran, shows his true colours too. A malevolent and sadistic tyrant, he makes snide remarks about Jezebel’s academic achievements, ridicules her name (the biblical Jezebel is commonly regarded as a harlot), and tells her that she will have to abide by his rules, which extends even to a ban on using sanitary napkins since cloths and rags are the menstrual articles of choice in the Marakkaran household.
Even when Jezebel and her husband return to her home town, where she is to pursue her MD, Jerome does not consummate their relationship. He takes away her stipend, and even assaults her on occasion. And yet she remains locked in this loveless, sexless, and abusive relationship, paralysed by the thought of what society will say if she were to seek a separation. Then, two and a half years later, Jerome meets with a car crash and falls into a coma.
It could have been a happy end to Jezebel’s troubles. But she still has her baleful father-in-law to contend with. George Marakkaran accuses her of having engineered the accident to murder Jerome and demands that she gives up her studies to take care of him. For the first time, however, Jezebel puts her foot down. She goes ahead and writes her MD exam and refuses to sacrifice her life to look after a husband who did not give her a day’s happiness.
Her father-in-law continues to malign her, charging her with having clandestine affairs, and tries to trap her in criminal cases such as drug peddling, attempted murder, and so on. Finally, Jezebel files for divorce. And it is the proceedings at the family court and the hostile questions that are directed at her there that punctuate the entire narrative, propelling it to unspool her traumatic story.
While the author deftly juxtaposes the courtroom scenes with the narrative of Jezebel’s intolerable marriage and her gradual emergence from the shackles of social expectation, her attempt to add symbolic heft to the novel with frequent allusions to the biblical Jezebel is less successful.
Again and again, Jezebel, the protagonist, harks back to her namesake, Jezebel, the queen of Jezreel, cursed by the Prophet Elijah, eventually eaten by dogs, and regarded as the very epitome of an immoral woman in popular culture. She seems to split her own self, at once identifying with the mythical queen and entering into a dialogue with her. (She also draws an equivalence between her evil father-in-law and the Prophet Elijah.)
However, instead of imbuing the narrative with metaphorical significance, the device feels like a force-fit—a clunky and gratuitous artifice that does little to add an element of transcendence to the story about a young doctor in Kerala who finds herself in the maw of patriarchy at its most vicious.
That story is worth telling, since even today thousands of girls and women in India see their ambitions extinguished, their potential ground underfoot, and their lives rigidly circumscribed by the diktats of husband and family.
In that sense, Meera’s Jezebel certainly gives voice to those silent, suffering multitudes. The problem is, many of her actions and reactions do not seem credible, inconsistent as they are with the other elements of her characterisation.
We are told that Jezebel is exceptionally bright and an exam topper all through. She is also a practising doctor, respected by her peers, and financially independent. It beggars belief, therefore, that such a woman would meekly endure an abominable marriage because she fears divorce is frowned upon by church and society. Again, Meera makes it clear that though Jezebel’s mother is a handmaiden of patriarchy, stern in her insistence that her duty to her husband overrides all else, her father and grandmother are liberal and humane and entirely on her side. Would Jezebel not have found support from them had she chosen to walk out of her marriage? In fact, it is they who encourage her to file for a divorce later.
What is even more baffling is that Jezebel is racked by guilt after she decides not to dedicate her life to the care of the comatose Jerome, a man who abused her and was husband to her in name only.
“Was he a good husband to me?” she asks herself. “Did he give me all that I wanted?” she wonders, making us wonder, in turn, if she is really just a witless masochist who somehow lucked out and managed to pass all those tough medical exams.
Indeed, a vein of improbability and exaggeration runs right through the novel. It is evident in the depiction of Jezebel’s father-in-law, a man so unremittingly diabolic that he seems to be a caricature rather than a real person; it is evident in the courtroom scenes where the lawyer’s questions to Jezebel are so grossly offensive and anti-women, that it is astonishing that they are mostly allowed without objection; and it is evident most of all in the way Jezebel, an educated and accomplished modern young woman, seems to be in thrall to the antiquated social convention that decrees that marriage is an everlasting bond, nay, a cross, which must be borne by the woman even if she gets crucified as a result.
And then there is the prose. Readers of Meera’s earlier works such as Qabar will find Jezebel disconcerting on that score. Instead of lyricism and a certain felicity with the language, what we get are sentences like these: “She could feel pieces of her heart fume and burn, flames flaring up in every breath she exhaled, and her flesh smouldering in pain like wet firewood.” There are many such flesh-burning and bone-melting passages in the book.
The pain of womanhood, and the atrocious demands that society tends to make on women, cannot be overemphasised. Sadly, overemphasis rarely makes for good literature.
Shuma Raha is a journalist and author.