India Today

By Trial or Error?

The cinematic appeal of K.R. Meera’s newly translated novel only amplifies its feminist urgency

- —Suresh Menon

WWhen I was a child, my parents sometimes took me to black-and-white movies where the message was hammered into you. The orphan who finds a good home and becomes an IAS officer, the drunk who reforms and turns do-gooder, the wife who is ill-treated by a husband who then gets his comeuppanc­e. These were stock themes. Each came with a moral. K.R. Meera’s Jezebel (translated from the Malayalam by Abhirami Girija Sriram and K.S. Bijukumar) has a more complex story to tell, and does so with greater authority and self-confidence. But there is something of the old movies here, perhaps because it is so visual, perhaps because of the occasional coincidenc­es that drive the story, perhaps because of the moral centre.

The haunting images of this novel about patriarchy and self-knowledge, about compromise and revenge denied, stay with you long after the book is shut. “As she stood in the family court,” it begins, “pelted with the blame of having paid a contract killer to murder her husband, Jezebel had this revelation: To endure extreme torture, imagine yourself as Christ on the cross.” It’s a start that promises mystery, tension, conflict, redemption, retributio­n, and the book delivers on all of them.

Jezebel is one of the most interestin­g characters in contempora­ry Indian fiction. She is both a person and a type. A doctor, like her husband Jerome George Marakkaran, but unlike him, well-read and worldly, she brings dignity to this tale from the basement of human behaviour. A tale in black and white and grey, where some characters are gay, others are undergoing gender reassignme­nt, and where, thanks to the book’s structure, there’s a surprise around some corners.

The Biblical Jezebel is the archetype of the wicked woman. She goes in and out of the novel to remind us of how it might have ended— she was thrown out of her palace window and devoured by dogs. The fictional Jezebel suffers the husband’s indifferen­ce, the father-in-law’s abuse, her own family’s lack of support; things happen to her, she seldom initiates them. But did she pay someone to kill her husband? The courtroom scenes, with their flashbacks, make the movie connection stronger. The judge and lawyers punish Jezebel, much like her husband did, for the crime of being a woman. In the old movies, the background music indicated the mood; here, the writing—from rich to spare— does the same.

In The Hangwoman,

Meera had written, “The Buddha had permitted only men to leave their homes and walk the path of Dhamma. He was convinced that women, trapped in their perishable bodies that are eventually sapped by time, require no extra enlightenm­ent.” Jezebel is a continuati­on of that theme.

As I was finishing this book came the news from New York that an Indian woman, 30, had committed suicide, saying in a video: “The people responsibl­e for my death are my husband and my in-laws. They didn’t let me live.” Toxic patriarchy is alive and well, and not just in fiction. ■

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By K.R. Meera; translated by Abhirami Girija Sriram and K.S. Bijukumar
JEZEBEL By K.R. Meera; translated by Abhirami Girija Sriram and K.S. Bijukumar PENGUIN HAMISH HAMILTON `599; 400 pages
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