The Good Wife, A Retelling by Pavitra Srinivasan
Reviewed by Deeksha Balaji
Featured in Out of Print’s March 2015 journal, Srinivasan’s retelling of a Tamilian folk tale is hauntingly enamouring and leaves the reader with a buzzing mind. It is a beautiful story dating the perpetration of violence against women back to the BC Era, showing the inherent oppression of the woman in marriage and family.
The story tells the tale of a young woman, Neeli appearing before the council of elders (a bit like the modern Panchayat) in the Tamil village of Pazhaiyanur. She expresses her grievances- that her husband Bhuvanapathi refused to recognize her and their daughter- and seeks justice from the elders. It is revealed in the story that Neeli’s husband and her in-laws had ousted her from the family after arranging a second marriage for Bhuvanapathi with a more affluent family. While Neeli herself had no objection to this marriage, the family was stubborn and forcefully ostracized her.
A woman at the time was compelled to present herself as a dharampatni or a ‘good wife’ in order to be given justice, though ideally, it should have been given to her regardless. The same is the case with Neeli who presents herself as an immaculate follower of the scriptures and a blind adherent to the Laws of Manu. It is thus that she is able to convince the elders to sympathise with her and grant her requests. However, despite being built as a meek character throughout the story, a shocking twist in the end, reveals a more feminist streak in her character.
More importantly, the story leads the reader to question several beliefs held dearly even in modern Indian society. What does it mean to be a good wife? To be ‘seen and not heard’? To be obedient and exist for the sole purpose of pleasing those around her? To be so immensely dependent that she cannot survive without her husband? To have no identity of her own? Srinivasan’s stroke of genius forces us to consider the ramifications of the ‘trophy wife’ stereotype contextualize it. How much has really changed in the status of wives since the reign of the Pandyas in 300BCE?
In a very poignant way, the story nullifies the traditional and stereotypical essentials of a ‘good wife’. The idea of the dharampatni is a mere justification for the age old trends of domestic violence. In an eerily beautiful manner, Srinivasan’s masterpiece sheds light on this injustice.
Reviewer Deeksha Balaji is an intern at Out of Print and helped develop the project 'Premise'.