Virmati’s Quest for Independence in Manju Kapur’s Difficult Daughters

Nazia Kamali

- Nazia Kamali

Abstract: Difficult Daughters is Manju Kapur’s first novel. It was published in 1998 and won the commonwealth prize for the best first novel. The novel introduces us to the nature of struggle a girl has to go through in a patriarchal society such as ours to get what she wants.
 Manju Kapur’s Difficult Daughters is set against the backdrop of partition. It is the story of a young girl Virmati who fights against her family and the patriarch to get her well deserved independence she was called names, punished and locked down in the attic, she lost her job and her family but nothing could change her mind. Manju Kapur gave us a strong woman of the new world to look at. The battle was long drawn, tough and took all ounce of her energy but Virmati never gave up. The only problem was that Virmati forgot that she was not alone. Many people were involved in the journey she undertook and quite a lot of them got hurt including Virmati herself.

Key Words: desire, family, happy, independence, marriage, wrong

Independence is the quest of every human being. We all have an innate desire to break free from everything that is holding us back or tying us up. That is the basic psychological nature of humans. Though we are all bounded by duties, responsibilities and relations, what we actually want is to live our lives on our own terms, not being answerable to any soul. This was what Virmati wanted.

Virmati, the protagonist of Manju Kapur’s Difficult Daughters was the eldest of the eleven children of Kasturi and her husband Suraj Prakash. From a very young age she was made to share her mother’s burden. Virmati was responsible for taking care of her younger siblings, discipline them, help them study and also help in the kitchen. She was made to grow before her age.

At times she yearned for affection, for some sign that she was special. (DD 6)

All she could hear from her mother was constant nagging of how there was so much left to be done and Virmati was not helping her. When Virmati went to Dalhousie with her mother during her pregnancy, she was greatly influenced by her cousin Shakuntala who was living in Lahore independent, earning her own money and living a life of her choice. Virmati was not only impressed but also charmed by the way Shakuntala lived, the way she dressed, the way she spoke and every tiny thing about her. She wanted the same things for herself.

Virmati went to Stratford College after she finished Class VIII and took admissions in Fine arts. She wanted to study and have an identity of her own. She refused to bow down before the wishes of other. She had had enough of that in her adolescence. Her mother got pregnant for the last time when Virmati was sixteen and looking after the home; her siblings made her fail the FA examinations.  So she started studying again and when her family arranged her marriage to a canal engineer, she asked for some time to study while being engaged to the engineer but finally refuses to marry him.

Virmati went to Lahore for higher studies, completed her BA and BT to become a teacher, a working professional. She also went to rallies and listened to the speeches made by leaders for India’s independence. Virmati wanted the independence for herself too. This was her basic right and she was right to demand that.

However, in this quest for independence she starts a scandalous affair with the tenant of her grandfather who was also her professor at college, Harish. Harish was a married man. He was married to Ganga when both of them were children. He carried on with his studies, went to Oxford university and came back to become a Professor, While Ganga stayed at home doing learning all the chore she needed to run the house they both would build together. Thus Ganga stayed illiterate. Though Harish tried to teach her how to read and write, she could not grasp it and finally was left to live as she was living till date. They had a daughter Choti and later in the novel Ganga gave birth to a son Girish.

Meeting Virmati, seeing her in college intrigued the Professor. He always wanted a partner who could be his equal. Something that Ganga lacked. This led to a scandalous affair between him and Virmati.
Virmati plus fiancé, the Professor plus wife. An invisible quadrangle in a classroom. (DD 53)

 This affair somehow ruined the effect of the New Woman in the novel. Virmati wanted to have a life of her choosing but in doing so she started ruining the life of another woman. She somehow tends to forget that this was wrong. A woman who spent her entire life with a man, birthed her children was to learn that she was not good enough for her husband now, after so many years of devoting her life to him.

Selfish is a person who takes action showing concerns only for her, without bothering what effect would it have on the lives of others.  Virmati pronounced her decision of not wanting to marry the Canal engineer. She was locked down by the family in the attic and her younger sister Indumati was married to the same man to save the honour of the family. Yes, Virmati suffered for that transgression but she was so absorbed in her own love and self sympathy that she never made an attempt to find out if her sister was happy with the decision.

This quest for independence of Virmati was self centred. She was not concerned with the feelings of her sister. How was she going to look at the man as her husband who was soon to be her brother- in- law? Virmati’s step brought this fate upon Indumati. The least she could do was to apologise to her sister and her ask her if she was okay with what was happening. It was sudden for Indumati too and hence difficult but we never see Virmati trying to sneak in her sister’s room to talk or ask Parvati to bring her upto the attic to talk or write her a letter as passionately as she wrote to Harish. We see a girl who desired to be free of the boundaries lay down upon her by her family but her desires are limited to her own good. It was aright if someone was sacrificed at her place in the name of the honour of the family as long as it was not her.

It is a general notion that people of same gender easily understand the feelings of one another. Virmati should have understood what her step of marrying a married man will do to his first wife. Ganga was Harish’s wife for as long as she could remember. She knew no other man; she loved no one other than Harish and offered him whatever she had.  Being a woman Virmati must have known what Harish meant to his wife. She knew she was wrong. She says that herself. But when she had to choose between her own love and Ganga’s marital bliss, Virmati chose the former. Time and again we see her going away from Professor and coming back. She kept on swaying until she finally marries an already married man. A man who had a wife and two children he was answerable for.

Virmati was a literate woman; she knew what was right and wrong. She was strong too. She showed that strength when she refused to marry the canal engineer. She showed that strength when she decided to move away from home to make a future, but she became weak when it came to Harish. It would have been romantic were Harish not married. But she became the other woman in his life. She became the one who stole Ganga’s husband from her.  Instead of taking a rational decision which would have benefitted everyone Virmati married Harish and came to live in his house as a co-wife.

She complains about everything. Her lassi had too much salt, she wasn’t given milk in the morning, she was not given a chance to bath on time etc. Not once do we see her trying to understand what hell she had raised upon Ganga. We never see her even thinking of Ganga’s agony and pain. All she did was complaining. It was only after her miscarriage that Virmati thinks of the incident as a punishment inflicted upon her for what she did to Ganga and her children.

The worst influence this marriage had was on Choti, the elder daughter of Harish and Ganga. She was a child but sensible enough to understand what was going on. In her little mind her mother was harmed, her place was being snatched away by an outsider. She was in the age when we form our thoughts, when we learn our own worth and for her she was not worthy enough for her father. As a child she saw her mother’s pain and identified with it. All her life Choti yearned for her father’s attention.

This also had a severe effect on her mind leading to trust issues. Choti took a job in the administrative services and never married.  She wanted her father’s approval and that she got by proving herself worthy but her sense of trust was broken. Her father never found any man good enough for her and Choti too never shows any intention to marry a man of her own choice. She might have lost trust in the institution of marriage after what happened to her mother and also must have believed that a man would never be hers for life and thus took the decision to not marry at all.

Somehow Virmati’s desire to be her own master led her to influence other’s life too and that was not always for the benefit of those who were influenced. However, this quest proved fatal for Virmati too.
While Virmati was in Lahore, Harish would arrange for them to meet in a house of a friend. He made sexual advances towards her which she could not resist. Ultimately she became pregnant. The entire journey from the knowledge of her pregnancy to the feeling of guilt and shame to the agony of abortion was made by Virmati alone. Though it was her own choice to keep the professor in dark, she still had to go through everything. They were both partners in the act which led to her pregnancy but Virmati was alone during the abortion. She couldn’t tell her family, she had no money; she had to sell the bangles her father gave her to pay for the abortion. All she had was her friend Swarna who helped her throughout the process where she had to cycle back to hostel after the painful process of killing her love child. The sympathies of Harish later could not spare her the horrors she had to go through all alone.

Nahan was the happiest part of Virmati’s life. She was appointed as the vice principal of a girl’s school. The place was quiet and serene. Away from home, away from all the noises of the city, Virmati was at peace.  She was respected by the girls and the people she worked for. One night Harish turned up unannounced at her staff quarters to meet her. Though she protested to his visits, her love for the Professor weakened Virmati and also her rationality. Nahan being a small place, people started talking. Such discretions are not allowed in Indian society especially the people at posts such as that of Virmati are expected to maintain the decorum of their position. What happened ultimately was that she was asked to leave the school and go from the place.  Once again it was Virmati who suffered. She had to leave a place she loved so much and go.

When Harish married Virmati, he took her home to live with his mother, first wife and two children. To her utter dismay Virmati was a co-wife. She never had Harish for herself. Moreover, it was she who had to suffer the wrath of the entire family. Everyone hated her; she was called names and was separated from the rest of the family. Girish, the Professor’s son from his first wife protested loudly.
Who is this gandi lady? Send her away (DD 208)

From the time Harish left till his arrival back at home, Virmati was treated like an enemy alien. The house itself was a prison for her. This was not what Virmati had wanted. She was an independent woman, she never dreamt of a life like this. She was trapped. She told Harish:
I should have never married you, and it’s too late now. I’ve not seen it so clearly. It’s not fair. (DD 212)

The relationship Virmati had with Harish was one of equality. They were both partners in whatever they did yet it was only Virmati who was cut off from her family. Once when she went to meet her mother after the marriage she was cursed by the very lady who brought her in the world.

It would have been better if you had drowned in the canal than live to disgrace us like this! (DD 220)
The only touch she had with her natal family was through Parvati her youngest sister. She would come to meet her sister but with time even her visits became infrequent and Virmati was afraid to ask why. 

After her first miscarriage Virmati became hollow inside. She felt violated when Harish made love to her and expected her to be happy and cheerful. She wanted to be messed up but Harish wanted her prim. In the end she just accepted her fate like every woman in India is expected to.

A woman’s happiness lies in giving her husband happiness. (DD 227)

To make her happy Harish sent Virmati away to pursue MA in philosophy. That was not what she wanted. She wanted a husband and a child and some peace in life, but Virmati quietly followed her husband’s instruction to be away from his first wife and children and all the mess involved with them. Once many years ago she ran from her family the same way. Now she went away from her husband’s home not even wanting to return for her summer break. Her married life made her so miserable that Virmati had no desire to live with her husband. She only came back when Harish told her that he could not afford her living in Lahore for two months during the summer break. Virmati was suffering just like her mother land was. India got independent after 200 years of British rule at the cost of a portion of her land. Similarly Virmati got her independence at the cost of her relationship with her family and the burden of being a co-wife, not having Harish completely to herself.

The path that Virmati carved for herself years ago started with a burning desire to be independent, to live a life on her own, choosing what to study, where to work, whom to love and marry. This quest for independence became selfish in the middle of the chase. Virmati fulfilled her desires at the cost of her sister’s and Ganga’s lives and Choti’s psychology. But sadly it did not end on a happy note. Time and again Virmati felt she made a wrong call. Her decision destroyed everything she held dear and took it away from her- her family, her first child, her job at Nahan, her dignity and ultimately the very thing, her independence. The road to independence proved to be destructive.

Were Virmati so happy with her life she would have recounted the story of her youth to Ida, her daughter. Instead Ida had to find out all she wanted about her mother after her death. 

Kapur, Manju. Difficult Daughters. Penguin Books, 1998.
Garewal, Natasha. Manju Kapur’s Virmati in Difficult Daughters:  A New Woman. Ameraican International Journal of Research in Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences, 2014

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