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The Dark Room by RK Narayan or Desperate Indian Housewife

February 15, 2017 Leave a comment Go to comments

The Dark Room by RK Narayan. (1935) French title: Dans la chambre obscure.

NarayanI had already read and loved Swami and Friends and I was looking forward to returning to fictional Malgudi with another book by RK Narayan. And I wasn’t disappointed.

The Dark Room is not as light as Swami and Friends which was centered on childhood. We are introduced to a family of five persons, the husband Ramani, his wife Savitri and their children Babu (13), Sumati (11) and Kamala (5). This is a Tamil family of the middle class in the South of India in the 1930s. Ramani works for an insurance company and his wages are enough to support his family and hire two domestics. Ramani and Savitri have been married for fifteen years and Ramani reigns on his household as a spoiled tyrant. The society gives him privileges because he’s a man and he takes advantage of it.

RK Narayan describes the daily life in Ramani’s house. Everything and everyone revolves around him. When he leaves for work, the other members of the family exhale a big sigh because they know they won’t be riding on the roller-coaster of his moods until he comes home. Ramani isn’t mean or violent per his time and place’s standards. He’s just the head of the house and the atmosphere is different when the master is at home. Narayan never calls him “master” but his behaviour is close to a master and servant relationship. He’s unhappy if the garage door is not duly opened when he arrives, despite the fact that he comes home at random hours that no one can foresee. Savitri is his trophy wife, a property he’s happy to show off, like a shiny sports car or a big diamond.

Ramani sat in a first-class seat with his wife by his side, very erect. He was very proud of his wife. She had a fair complexion and well-proportioned features, and her sky-blue sari gave her a distinguished appearance. He surveyed her slyly, with a sense of satisfaction at possessing her. When people in the theatre threw looks at her, it increased his satisfaction all the more.

As a man, Ramani has a lot of power and he doesn’t deserve it. He’s whimsical, cruel sometimes and doesn’t hesitate to make decisions or impose his views just because he can. After 15 years, Savitri is tired of her life as a housewife. She takes no pleasure in running her household. She’s bored to death by her daily routine. Here she is, thinking about the preparation of meals and its related tasks:

“Was there nothing else for one to do than attend to this miserable business of the stomach from morning till night?”

The Dark Room from the title is where Savitri finds solace when her family becomes a burden, when she needs alone time to regroup and refuel. Ramani cannot understand that and the children are puzzled as well. But she needs it.

Their fragile equilibrium is shattered when a woman is hired at Ramani’s insurance company and he gets infatuated with her. We see Ramani’s behaviour change while Savitri’s quiet resistance grows and turns into full-blown rebellion. She resents her fate as a woman and she starts expressing her feelings and opinions. She challenges Ramani, like here:

’I’m a human being,’ she said, through her heavy breathing. ‘You men will never grant that. For you we are playthings when you feel like hugging, and slaves at other times. Don’t think that you can fondle us when you like and kick us when you choose’

And she reflects that society is made to keep women under the tutelage of their closest male relative, father, husband or son. Of course, this doesn’t only happen in India. Savitry realises that she’s always under somebody’s order because she has no financial independence.

I don’t possess anything in this world. What possession can a woman call her own except her body? Everything else that she has is her father’s, her husband’s, or her son’s.

She comes to the conclusion that she should have studied to have a degree, to have a chance to get a job and earn her own money. She thinks of her daughters’ future and promises to herself that they will have the choice and feel obliged to be married to get fed.

If I take the train and go to my parents, I shall feed on my father’s pension; if I go back home, I shall be living on my husband’s earnings, and later, on Babu. What can I do myself? Unfit to earn a handful of rice except by begging. If I had gone to college and studied, I might have become a teacher or something. It was very foolish of me not to have gone on with my education. Sumati and Kamala must study up to the B.A. and not depend their salvation on marriage. What is the difference between a prostitute and a married woman? –the prostitute changes her men, but a married woman doesn’t; that’s all, but both earn their food and shelter in the same manner.

I didn’t expect to find such a modern and feminist novel under Narayan’s pen. It was an agreeable surprise and I can only warmly recommend The Dark Room. It’s an unusual topic for a male writer of the 1930s. He’s very good at describing Savitri’s disenchantment and growing awareness that she’s trapped. She has no other choice than be a wife and a mother. It could be as dark as the room Savitri closes herself into but it’s not. I could feel Narayan thinking that education was the key to freedom and equality for women. It’s certainly necessary to reach financial independence but it’s not enough without a proper legal environment. He’s hopeful though and his hope can be perceived in his novella.

It is truly an odd book for its time and I wonder how it was received when it was first published. From a strictly literary point of view, Narayan’s prose flows like the water of a stream. It’s clear, melodic and unaffected. My omnibus edition, a kind gift from Vishy, also includes The Bachelor of Arts and The English Teacher. I am sure I will like them too. Thanks again, Vishy!

Highly recommended.

  1. February 15, 2017 at 11:40 pm

    I was glad to see your review of an RK Narayan work. I have two of his books, yet unread, on my shelves. I’m intrigued that he takes such a feminist perspective. I am more intrigued to read him now than ever. Thanks for the good review!

    Like

    • February 18, 2017 at 7:11 pm

      Sorry for the very slow reply. Which ones do you have?

      Like

      • February 18, 2017 at 10:30 pm

        No worries–I suppose you have a life outside your blog! 🙂 I have The Financial Expert (as part of the Time Reading Program series I collect) and The Grandmother’s Tale, which I think is novella/short story collection. Have you read either?

        Like

        • February 20, 2017 at 2:31 pm

          I do, yes and sometimes it takes over blogging time.

          I haven’t read these two novellas by Narayan.

          Liked by 1 person

  2. Dorothy H Willis
    February 16, 2017 at 1:38 am

    I recently read The Glass Palace by Amitav Ghosh. If you haven’t read it, please do. I believe you will appreciate it.

    Like

    • February 18, 2017 at 7:11 pm

      Thanks for the recommendation. I’ll check it out.

      Like

  3. February 16, 2017 at 6:40 am

    I haven’t read this author, but then I haven’t read a great deal of Indian books. Still ploughing my way through other countries.

    Like

    • February 18, 2017 at 7:10 pm

      I’m not good with Indian literature either. Without Vishy, I wouldn’t have read him. I’d never heard of him.
      I think it’s definitely a book you’d enjoy.

      Like

  4. February 16, 2017 at 9:31 am

    I recall your review of Swami and Friends a little while ago. It’s good to hear that this one lived up to expectations. The feminist angle sounds quite unusual for the period…

    Like

    • February 18, 2017 at 7:09 pm

      This angle was unexpected. Swami and Friends is different because it’s from a child’s point of view. This one gives a voice to a woman and Narayan sounds like a modern man

      Like

  5. February 16, 2017 at 12:55 pm

    This sounds good. I have been wanting to read RK Narayan for a while.

    The themes of this book sound both interesting and worthy.

    Great review as always.

    Like

    • February 18, 2017 at 7:08 pm

      I think you’ll like this one, Brian, especially given your interest for women’s rights. And it’s very well written.

      Like

  6. February 16, 2017 at 1:45 pm

    As I think I said on your other Narayan review, I definitely liked his Painter of Signs, which also explores gender issues to an extent (though it’s far from the only focus). This again sounds good. He really does seem a very talented writer.

    There’s a review of The Glass Palace at mine if that interests you, though I’m afraid I didn’t take to it at all and haven’t read more Ghosh in consequence.

    Like

    • February 18, 2017 at 7:05 pm

      Sorry for the slow reply.

      He’s a talented writer. I like his polite style with a light sense of humour and his way of analysing his society, quietly, through the lives of his characters and without making a fuss out of it?
      Is he well-known in England?

      Like

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