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Sense and Sensibility of Women in Meena Alexander’s ‘Nampally Road’

Women in the patriarchal society are subjugated and pulled towards the periphery by male chauvinistic writers. Feminist writing challenges the dominant literary tradition through negotiating power and marginalises women’s experiences and identities. Many feminist writings are focused on women’s experiences in their family, society and relationship. If a woman writer paints her own portrait by her it appears to be looking into the mirror to see her where the images she sees provoke her to contrastic and unpredictable responses to her own body and face. A woman is very much concerned about her appearance which brings the feeling of uncomfortable and security because that is the way they are judged by others. As a writer, Alexander strives for freedom within the world of patriarchal society through her writings. She tries to break down the existing patriarchal society and creates a space for herself in the world of male chauvinism. In her works, Alexander presents multi faces of women as mothers, political activists and victims of patriarchal society. She has also presented the social and political sense of women which provides the rules and regulations for women. 

Alexander brings out strong female characters in her novel Nampally Road, such as Mira, Durgabai, Raniamma, Laura, Maitreyi and Rameeza Be. These women characters represent the different sensibility of women in different classes. Alexander portrays Mira as a sensitive college teacher, Durgabai as a compassionate doctor, Maitreyi as a courageous sweeper and Rosamma as a communist worker. Through the strong and independent feminine images, Alexander tries to discover the place of women in society by altering the traditional boundaries drawn by patriarchy. Alexander explores the significance of women through the character Durgabai, who is a kind, loveable, sympathetic and compassionate widow. She has a son who lives abroad for his education. Formerly she was the head of Hyderabad Center for Children’s Diseases where she has served for thirty long years. Even in her old age, she is not free, “she scarcely had time to rest” (Nampally 18) which reveals her enormous power of work. She is running her clinic under “a tin roof in one of the poorest parts of town” (Nampally 17) but she does her service for nothing. For instance, once a man, who is a widower from the hill region, brings a boy, who is attacked by a leopard on the hill to treat his wound. He is so poor, the wound in the boy’s forehead is so huge and it is like a hole which reaches the brain and maggots are crawling over the tissues of knowledge. Durgabai knows that the child will not survive because the brain has been damaged a lot but she is so sympathetic towards the boy. Sometimes her job is to deliver babies from unwanted pregnancies where she is compassionate towards the “Woman in trouble, rapped or saddled with an unwanted pregnancy” (Nampally 16). She is sympathetic towards them and builds up the spirit of those women by saying “Shame doesn’t last” (Nampally 16). Hence Alexander wishes for the transformation of India, through the character of Durgabai, and so significantly claims, “A new India is being born” (Nampally 16). The protagonist, Mira, a twenty-five-year-old young girl, lives with Durgabai in her house, as a paying guest. She treats her as if she is her own daughter and Mira adopts her as a surrogate mother. Mira calls Durgabai “Little Mother” (Nampally 16) and shares everything with her. Like a mother, Durgabai loves Mira and takes care of her and also she gives shape to her valuable ideas. So Durgabai not only appears to be a mother of Mira but of the entire people of India. Alexander tries to explore the significance of the attachment of female characters in her novel. Mira’s relationship with Durgabai helps her a lot in times of distress. Mira seeks emotional refuge and “guidance in her attempts to assimilate this new experience – this ‘poetics of dislocation’” (Dutt 225). As Mira is loved and taken care by the little mother, Durgabai, cultivates values within her. Little mother’s motherly affection is explicit through the small boys in the bicycle shop who sleeps on the pavement. Little mother wraps themselves with rags and feels happy in treating the ailments of these boys. Like a mother, she also feels about the amount of food which they used to take and she says, “They eat so poorly. A bit of rice, or roti and some dal if they’re lucky” (Nampally 19). This brings out her sympathy and concern for the poor child. According to Sasikanth, “the little mother, perhaps, is symbolic of Mother India. The symbolism is made evident when Durgabai suffers from illness as the city goes through commotions and atrocities carried out in the name of politics” (141).

Like Alexander, Mira writes poems, but she has never published them. Ramu, who is her friend, lover and colleague of Mira mocks her writing. He says that there is no use in writing poetry at this juncture of trouble in the society, instead advises her to be a woman of action. Here Alexander focuses on thinking about women think about gender. Thereby she introduces the idea that the women’s question is structurally necessary to our society and politics. The critic Joseph points out that, “she attributes all the vandalism and crime against women and other subalterns to the corrupt system” (59).

After the colonization, native women are marginalized by their sex as well as by virtue of their relative economic oppression and gender subordination. In every aspect, women are dominating and they are easily dehumanized, exploited and sexually abused by the male. Indian women still liver under the shadow of patriarchal tradition that women should be subordinate to the male and this develops violence against women. Rameeza Be is another woman character, who attains sympathy and concern from the readers. Here Alexander gives a fictional form to a true episode of the rape of a Muslim woman, Rameeza Be. On March 30, !978, at night when they return from celebrating Isak Katha in Sagar Talkies, a gang of drunkard policemen has raped her and her husband is beaten to death. They killed him because he refuses to pay four hundred rupees to the police. The drunkard policemen drag her to the police station and rape her. They also beat her for the whole night. The dead body of her husband is, later, found in a nearby well. She is raped by the policemen, who are the custodians of law and order in society.  Apart from Maitreyi, the portrait of Gandhiji and Nehru, the great freedom fighters of India are the only silent witnesses of this brutal incident in the prison cell. Though she is beaten cruelly to death, she is still alive miraculously. She is rescued by the infuriated community from the cell and they set fire to Gowliguda police station. Even though they have tortured her heartlessly, the radio news declared her a “source of turbulence” and “rewards were announced for finding her” (Nampally 59). Maitreyi rescues her and helps her to get into her normal life gradually. Durgabai, Mira and Maitreyi console the bleeding Rameeza Be Mentally and physically.

Maitreyi is the cleft-lipped sweeper woman, who rescues Rameeza Be from the police station and treats her in a safe place. Maiitreyi herself is a victim of society’s insatiable greed and abuse of power. She is the daughter of Pithulbai and an unmarried woman whose family has had a peacock garden earlier, which is attracted by Nizam of Hyderabad. As they don’t have the physical power to protest against Nizam taking all their land and property. Now she leads her life in poverty in a small hut near King Koti. Apart from being a sweeper, she is a snake keeper who knows to extract poison from snakes and helps her in times of distrust and poverty in her life. Though she belongs to the upper class, she suffers from poverty. Even though she is poor, she hasn’t afraid of being a witness to this shameful incident of Rameeza Be.

Rosamma is a memorable character in Nampally Road, who is a  Marxist leader from the hill country. She attends a meeting which is arranged to take revenge on Rameeza Be’s attackers. Through this, she tries to instigate the furious nature of the people and cries out: “overcome oppression, down with chains” (Nampally 89). Further, she teaches them to take the knife of justice and the value of resistance to injustice and tries to attain it through revolution.

On the one side, women are suffering under the patriarchal society whereas on the other side women try to happy life imposed on themselves. Alexander represents it through the character of Laura and Rani. Laura is the neighbour to Durgabai and Rani is Durgabai’s servant. Both of them have spent their time in talking about film stars and movies in Sagar Talkies. Laura’s husband Henry is a drunkard who has used to beat her. This reveals that women are still in the clutches of a male-dominated society. Again an old woman, who is a cobbler suffering from leukoderma, has been doing her work without bothering about the birthday celebrations of Limca Gowda. Though she does not harm anybody, she is threatened by an Ever Ready man. But she doesn’t mind him and is sincerely concentrating on meeting the broken chappals of Mira. Finally, a policeman stares at her and “kicked some of her leather scraps into the gutter and then walked away, lathi in hand” (Nampally 102). But the old woman is calm and continues to do her work. Her attitude towards the policemen, makes Mira realises her inability.

Finally, Mira, as an educated woman, drives her strength for action from the subaltern voices. She also accepts the words of Rosamma that “You must not be afraid to use knives. How else should we reach the new world?” (Nampally 90). The words of Rosamma have boosted her to raise her voice for the subaltern people. Mira understands that the marginalized have to sustain their anger and one day they will reap justice, liberty and equality. Alexander makes great use of the dreams of women in her writings. Little mother is acquainting Mira with a dream in which she stands as both a trap as well as a liberating force. Through the dream of Mira Alexander explicates the insecurity of female existence in the oppressive male-dominated society. Mira narrates her horrible dream to Little mother:

‘I had a dream last. I was clutching the edge of a great pyramid made of bricks. The bricks were all jagged, all askew as if the pyramid were immensely old, or had been made by an unskilled labourer. But the bricks were not really bricks. I realized this as I held on for dear life. There was black water rushing all around me, and the water was climbing higher and higher. The bricks were alive. They were made of flesh. Human flesh. And they had voices that cried out in a tumult of tongues. As the water rose bit by bit, I struggled to climb higher. And far away as the eye could see was water, black water. Until to the right, all of a sudden I saw a small fire, rocking in that water. And then the fire grew and it invaded the water, and took dominion over it, and approached the pyramid where I still clung with all those crying voices of flesh. I couldn’t bear it. I tried to wake up (Nampally 65)

The bricks in the dream are not bricks but human flesh. They are a highly evocative symbol of suffering women who try to build their life, but on every side, they are battered and overcome by the black waters of patriarchal hegemonic force. The saving grace is the fire, which invades the black waters which is all-consuming, but it glows in the darkness and signifies the awakening spirit of women.

Alexander questions the value of the non-violence of Gandhi because it almost fails to bring a change in the lives of the poor and the subdued as seen in the life of the cobbler woman. Unless the woman takes up the “knife of justice”, (Nampally 90) there is little chance for freedom and justice. The subaltern must speak and then they must go for action, like the women from a village, Rosamma and Maitreyi. Basu writes that “Alexander suggests a path of recovery and healing through female solidarity and friendship” (11). Through the woman characters, Alexander defies the patriarchal society and motivates them to forbid a particular place in society. As a feminist, alexander “aims at liberation of women from male domination and at the promotion of their rights” (Pandey 12). Further she “demands a humanistic attitude towards women” (2). Hence women can get over the shackles of patriarchal society through friendship and hand in others’ problems.

Works Cited

Alexander, Meena. Nampally Road. Chennai: Orient Blackswan, 1992. Print.

Basu, Lopamudra and Cynthia Leenarts. Passage to Manhattan: Critical Essays on Meena Alexander. UK: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2009. Print.

Dutt, P. Kiranmai. “A Reader Odyssey into Meena Alexander’s Nampally Road.Indian Women Novelists: Set III: Vol.3. Ed. R. K. Dhawan. New Delhi: Prestige Books, 1995.225-28. Print.

Joseph, Mariam Kuruvilla. The Diasporic and Feminist Consciousness in Meena Alexander. Kerala: Comparative Literature Research and Study Centre, 2002. Print.

Pandey, Miti. Feminism in Contemporary British and Indian English Fiction. New Delhi: Sarup and Sons, 2003.Print.

Sasikanth, K. John Wesley. “The Plight of Women in Post Colonial India as Portrayed in Meena Alexander’s Nampally Road.” Research Journal of English Language and Literature 1.1 (2013): 139-42. Print.


Subitha K
Research Scholar, Scott Christian College, Nagercoil – 3
Affiliated to Manonmaniam Sundaranar University
Abishekapatti, Tirunelveli-627 012

Dr.J. Chitta
Assistant Professor of English
Research Scholar, Scott Christian College, Nagercoil – 3
Affiliated to Manonmaniam Sundaranar University
Abishekapatti, Tirunelveli-627 012

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Eleni Kerani
Eleni Kerani
2 years ago

Congratulations for this paper!

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