HerStory: Men Go To War, Women Fight Every Day

HerStory: Men Go To War, Women Fight Every Day

History is written about the victories or losses of male leaders and warriors, but the bigger battles are often fought by women, children and elderly left behind

Deepa GahlotUpdated: Thursday, June 27, 2024, 11:12 PM IST
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VV Ganeshananthan and her second book, 'Brotherless Night' | womensprize.com

“What kind of struggle expects women to support a cause but does not address our concerns?”

A central character in Brotherless Night asks this very crucial question. The historical novel by VV Ganeshananthan recently won the Women’s Prize for Fiction. And it’s true, whenever a society goes through an upheaval of any sort, the women are invariably left to fend for themselves, then pick up the pieces and mend the broken. History is written about the victories or losses of male leaders and warriors, but the bigger battles are often fought by women, children and elderly left behind. A different kind of violence... of loss and anguish

The novel is set during the war in Sri Lanka in the 1980s, when Tamil militants demanded a separate homeland for their people, who were being oppressed by the Sinhala majority. It is set in Jaffna, where medical student, Sashi, is swept up by the waves of a revolution she did not ask for, and the resulting violence she was forced to witness, endure and document.

The statement is made by a medical professor and human rights activist, Anjali Premachandran (based on outspoken real-life activist Rajani Thiranagama), when a group of her students, who have formed a reading circle, are discussing Kumari Jayawardena’s book, Feminism and Nationalism In The Third World, and a criticism of Gandhi’s words about women being better suited for nonviolent action, because they are better at withstanding suffering. “Better at suffering for what?” Anjali says, “Under whose direction do women suffer? What is the right way to suffer?”

Sri Lankan society of the time Ganeshananthan writes about was a mix of progressive and conservative; it still is, like so many parts of India and Asia. Another character, a fearless Bhavani, who runs a food stall with her mother, reads passage from the book, which puts the condition of women in her country in perspective, “The processes of education for women also contributed to the socializing of women into roles that were only superficially different from those of traditional society. Sri Lanka is thus an interesting example of a society in which women were not subjected to harsh and overt forms of oppression, and therefore did not develop a movement for women’s emancipation that went beyond the existing social parameters. It is precisely this background that has enabled Sri Lanka to produce a woman prime minister, as well as many women in the professions, but without disturbing the general patterns of subordination.”

Later in the novel, Bhavani is abducted, but not raped. She dares to file a complaint and has to bear the brunt of damning rumours and social censure. Sashi muses about how these raped women were “regarded as ruined by their families, which subscribed to conventional ideas about virginity and purity.” Rather than help them heal, the girls were sent away —“don’t talk about it; cover it up; send her away.”

In Brotherless Night, the narrator and protagonist, Sashi, and the other women, are getting an education, but at home, she has to mirror the behaviour of her mother—she has to cook and care for her four brothers. Their father has a travelling job, and is often away when the family faces a crisis. When the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and Sri Lankan Army go to war, helpless civilains are the casualties—killed, maimed, raped, looted, dishoused, starved. The Indian Peace Keeping Force comes in for criticism too for their violence and insensitivity.

For their education, Sashi and her beloved older brother Niranjan move to Colombo to live with their grandmother. Then riots break out in the city, their house is burnt down by Tamil-hunting rioters, and Niranjan disappears. After that fraught ‘brotherless night’, Sashi and her grandmother end up in a refugee camp, where they survive with the help of a friend Hasna and her father. Back in Jaffna, two of her brothers and K, a neighbour, with whom Sashi is in love, join the LTTE. Only the embittered youngest brother, Aran, remains with the parents.

A political movement for the rights of an oppressed people also attracts the usual riff-raff, who use the fear of violence to extort money and food from the Tamils of Jaffna. A neighbouring woman stoically cooks when a scrawny Tiger recruit comes periodically to demand food packets, handing her a list of dishes they want. When Sashi protests, the woman says that somebody else’s mother must be cooking for her brothers.

Even if the mothers remain in the background, they are a force. In the most moving section of the book, when Aran is picked up by the army and detained, along with other boys and young men, the mothers and sisters organize a protest march that forces the apathetic government to release the innocent captives. Men, never having seen women out in such numbers, jeer at them with taunts like, “Why don’t you bang your your pots and pans.”

It is love more than fear that makes Sashi, still in her first year, volunteer at a LTTE medical field camp, when K asks and she sees the full extent of the trauma suffered by the people. Much later in the novel, Sashi comes across a rape victim who has been brutally violated, and she is horrified at the extent of her injuries. As a junior doctor in an under equipped field hospital, Sashi does what she can to help; to herself she thinks, “This is what our mothers had warned us about: men and their desires, men and their wills, men and their bodies encroaching on ours. In whispers we had been warned of the ruin of rape, how it was something from which we could never recover. I wondered if her mother had told her that—if she believed it. It was wrong, of course; she had not lost her value. But we were not in a society that knew that.”

Her experiences that involve her brothers, K, the courageous Anjali and her husband Varathan, make Sashi brave; she is able to understand what she never would have, if her life had not been upended—starting with corpses in the street, and the burning of the town’s library, conditions spiralling into unimaginable darkness. Sashi says to the reader, “Imagine the places you grew up, the places you studied, places that belonged to your people, burned. But I should stop pretending that I know you. Perhaps you do not have to imagine. Perhaps your library, too, went up in smoke.”

Today, Sri Lanka is a tourist paradise again, but the powerful and compassionate Brotherless Night portrays, through the eyes of a woman, the horrors the country underwent.

The other books in the Women’s Prize fiction shortlist were just as evocative of the female experience and the overlap between the personal and the political — Anne Enright’s The Wren, The Wren set in Dublin, Kate Grenville’s Restless Dolly Maunder, in Wales, Isabella Hammad’s Enter Ghost in Palestine, Claire Kilroy’s Soldier Sailor in Ireland, Aube Rey Lescure’s River East, River West in China — winners all.

Deepa Gahlot is a Mumbai-based columnist, critic and author

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