Book review: The Daughters of Madurai

The Daughters of Madurai

Rajasree Variyar

Orion Publishing

Review: Karen Watkins

A girl is a burden. A girl is a curse. This is how the prologue begins in this poignant, powerful debut novel.

Two parallel stories move between past and present.

Janani is living in the ancient Indian city of Madurai in 1992, two months before conception of her second child.

Moving forward to 2019, physiotherapist Nila is living with her family in Sydney. They are planning to visit India to see her grandfather who is ill.

Growing up in Australia, Nila knows little about her roots and is eager to learn more.

Janani is a bright second daughter, born to impoverished son-less parents. Following the norms of society, she is forced into a loveless marriage to an abusive, alcoholic man.

She spends her days cleaning for her husband and wicked mother-in-law and a family that includes a childhood male friend.

Janani is allowed to keep her first-born daughter but not future girl babies for which she is blamed for the child’s sex.

In the prologue, Variyar writes that although illegal in India since 1961, traditions persist and female babies are smothered, poisoned, drowned or buried alive in rural, isolated areas where laws cannot be enforced.

Variyar writes that there are a dozen reasons why many Indian families do not want a girl; reasons rooted in centuries-old traditions.

The dowry system is a financial burden to the bride’s family with more daughters meaning more dowries or “gifts” to the grooms’ families.

In India, a woman does not carry the family name. She cannot own property. In the records she does not exist. Her education is basic. She struggles to earn income, the husband taking most of the little she does manage to earn. Until recently, women could not have a bank account.

In some places, in northern India, there are so few girls now that they’re kidnapped from other states, sold into marriage, into slavery, writes Variyar.

India is not the only country that prefers sons over daughters, but ideas and long-held beliefs are slowly changing.

Hopefully with this change domestic violence and violence against women will be eliminated from society.

In this story, Variyar creates images of the culture, lifestyle, food, the caste system, arranged marriages, homophobia and educating female children.

It’s the story of the imbalance of power between men and women in the society.

The characters are realistic although Nila’s is predictable and her secret is obvious.

It would have been good to know more about Janani’s friend Shubba. She is another victim of the dowry system and male-child preference who appears to be struggling with postpartum depression.

If you buy this book, take note of the glossary at the back.

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