Aruna Nambiar’s novel is a witty exploration of femininity and its side effects
Women should always be “manageable” and “tolerable”. As soon as they stray from the script that determines how they should be, they are either labeled “hysterical” or “weird.” In a world where misogyny and flawed reasoning lurk in deceptive morality, Aruna Nambiar’s latest novel, The Strange Women’s Clubis a celebration of three women who fall out of favor (quite gracefully, if I may add).
Hema, Avanti and Jeroo felt the tension of being alive. Their lives were going wild and there was little they could do to impose some semblance of structure in place. To be a woman is to apologize, and often that apology takes the form of a suppression of female individuality. As the story progresses, these women discover that there is solace and power in collective despair. In this spiritual exploration of womanhood and its side effects, Nambiar also argues for sisterhood and how it can be a powerful weapon in a woman’s arsenal in times of disaster.
The story of three women
After losing her husband, the eternal love of her life, Hema was left alone to face the tyranny of her spirit. For a time, she was constitutionally unable to handle the demands expected of a widow and a mother. She let herself crumble when everyone around her said she couldn’t afford to have depression for the sake of her children.
Avanti, fiercely independent and still blessed with her biting wit, suffered from ruthless love. Her husband of years left her for someone else and also failed to show up for their young daughter. Marriage, once a security blanket, finally turned into something capable of suffocating him in his sleep.
Jeroo struggled with infertility and nosy parents whose (unsolicited) opinions about her womb grew exponentially every day. Time and time again grief ambushed her and she was not yet good at the art of indifference.
The identities of Avanti, Hema and Jeroo were constantly shaped by the desires, expectations and perceptions of those around them. Their lives were not lived but barely survived. Since there was no glamor in their sadness, it was often discredited and mislabeled as cutesy sentimentality bordering on madness.
After being divorced and widowed respectively, as in, after the men around them were taken out of the equation, Avanti and Hema, became too overwhelmed to be turned into shows. And what good was a woman like Jeroo whose whole being could not be summed up in her reproductive potential? Women could be the Madonna or the Whore and Avanti, Hema and Jeroo failed miserably in living up to either stereotype.
The joys of brotherhood
Strange Women’s Club portrays women’s experiences in their own terms. It is important that these multidimensional models of femininity invade the cultural mainstream and demystify the binary narratives we impose on women. We need more fallible, vengeful, and therefore totally human heroines so that the real-life counterparts of Avanti, Hema, and Jeroo can measure and mold their identities around realistic standards.
Instead of nodding and listening to the muffled sounds of their passing days, the protagonists of Nambiar demanded more from life and took action. They dared to re-explore pleasure and passion, sexual and otherwise. They also rediscovered their enthusiasm for life (the cats might or might not have been involved in this storyline) and while traversing difficult terrain, in the most unlikely of circumstances, their paths crossed.
However, friendship does not happen overnight. Avanti, Hema, and Jeroo bickered to their heart’s content and didn’t share much affection for each other initially. But over time, they understood the need to delight in others and in turn be delighted by them. Joining a losing team is better than winning a lonely fight, and the women of Nambiar learn this the hard way.
Together, they renounce the brilliant performance of femininity that was expected of them. As they find empowerment, sometimes in the untrumpeted acts of kindness that brotherhood has enabled and sometimes in the arms of new men, Nambiar cleverly emphasizes how the realm of everyday intimacy is the real ferment of social change.
The Strange Women’s Club does not plead scholarly ideologies on the reverse side of the human condition, nor advertise the next revolution. There isn’t much novelty in the concepts that Nambiar espouses in his novel. But that takes nothing away from its literary splendour.
Filled with laugh-out-loud humor, this book takes a step towards extending the promise of life and freedom to women. Death isn’t always physical, and this novel reminds women not to die before they can live. Above all, Nambiar urges its readers to “rage against the death of light” when their identity is in danger of being erased.
Strange Women’s Club, Aruna Nambiar, talking tiger