Sitting next to Jerome George Marakkan while waiting to be betrothed, Jezebel asked herself: “Is this my husband?” KR Meera’s new novel begins with plenty of uncertainties like its lead character’s dilemma at the altar, but it’s clear from the start the award-winning Malayalam author is lashing out at Kerala’s vicious patriarchy, well hidden under its often-quoted social indicators. First published in the original Malayalam language as Sooryane Aninja Oru Sthree four years ago, Jezebel is a deafening echo of the cries for change from a moribund societal structure.
The novel’s titular character is a doctor who suddenly finds herself in matrimony, much to her disbelief. Returning home from a post-graduate class one day, Jezebel bears witness to the beginnings of an arranged marriage decided by those around her, leaving her no choice in her own future. Jerome George Marakkan, her future husband, is a doctor himself, born and raised by his Kerala-origin parents in Mumbai. The first question to Jezebel by Jerome’s father, George Jerome Marakkan, sets the stage for the tragedy to befall on an unsuspecting young woman.
“What is your name?” asks Marakkan as Jezebel serves the guests cups of tea in a tray. The reply triggers an outburst from the man who finds it difficult to believe any “true Christian could name his daughter” after “an accursed woman in the Bible”. Waving away explanations that Jezebel was a prophet who was stronger than any other woman in the Bible, Marakkan demands a change of name “at any cost”. Jezebel’s certificates of academic merit and medals come to her rescue, but she is not sure for how long.
She sees a reflection of his father in Jerome, leading her to ask the question on the day of their engagement, “Is this my husband?’”
The beginning of the novel is set seven years after that day the Marakkan family arrives at Jerusalem, Jezebel’s home, to “appraise” her. A broken Jezebel is facing a barrage of questions from Jerome’s lawyer in a family court which is hearing her divorce petition. She feels like Jesus Christ on the cross, enduring extreme torture. There is yet another round of accusations, all built around an alleged attempt to murder her husband. A courtroom saga begins as Jezebel looks back and remembers scenes from her marriage that brought her exciting life and career to a screeching halt.
The novel, which follows the author’s works in translation such as The Poison of Love (2017), about women abandoned by fathers, lovers and husbands in Vrindavan, and The Unseeing Idol of Light (2018), about violence against women, puts a modern society’s skewed and male-centric narrative in the witness box as questions are asked of them. By setting the novel in the middle of the medical profession, the novel also ponders over the progress of modern medicine against the hardening of stereotypes and stigmas. In the court, Jerome’s lawyer finds fault with her for learning to drive faster than her husband. At one point, Jezebel says in jest that men still need women to prop up their jokes.
Jezebel’s is not the only story of suffering in the novel. There is Sneha, a schoolgirl traumatised by the sexual abuse at the hands of her math teacher, and Angel, a four-year-old girl, who survived a mass suicide by her family because of debts, only to be sexually assaulted by her 60-year-old neighbour. There is also the complicity of people like Jezebel’s mother, who argues that “a good woman will not ever speak a word” against her husband, however worthless he is. Jezebel is also a story of the will to survive physical and mental wounds and standing up to force the change of a medieval mindset. Anitha, one of the novel’s main characters, picks up the brushes to become an artist after both her husband and lover abandon her. And Jezebel stands tall above everybody else while she fights a system rigged in favour of men. The novel is a battle cry to end the silent suffering of gender injustices in homes and outside.
Meera, who won numerous accolades for her works, importantly for her 2012 novel, Aarachaar, translated into English as Hangwoman: Everyone Loves a Good Hanging in 2014 about the entry of a woman as executioner, employs a narrative style that transports the reader back and forth in the journey of Jezebel. A self-confessed fan of Colombian writer Gabriel García Márquez, Meera begins her new novel with a Márquez-like first sentence: “As she stood in the family court, pelted with the blame of having paid a contract killer to murder her husband, Jezebel had this revelation…” While Márquez reconstructs death in works like Chronicle of a Death Foretold, which the Nobel Prize-winning author considered his best work, Meera reconstructs a life under the thumb. In Jezebel, the author continues her search for truth in the painstaking peep into the inner selves of her characters, who surprise us and themselves with their spirit and fortitude. The novel vastly benefits from a brilliant translation by Abhirami Girija Sriram and KS Bijukumar, who use informal expressions in Malayalam to retain its original strength and flavour.
Faizal Khan is a freelancer
Translated by Abhirami Girija Sriram and KS Bijukumar
Penguin Random House
Pp 400, Rs 599