#DesiBooksReview 4: Manju Kapur’s Quiet Novel about Women’s Lives in the Partition Resonates Deeper than Ever

Suhasini Patni is a freelance writer based in Jaipur and Delhi. Currently, she is working on her postgraduate degree in linguistics at the University of Rochester, New York. Website.

#DesiBooksReview Issue 4

Difficult Daughters by Manju Kapur | Penguin India | February 01, 1998

Manju Kapur's Difficult Daughters

Manju Kapur believed that her debut novel should’ve been called Partitions. Instead, her publishers chose the title Difficult Daughters, releasing a book that would end up winning the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize in 1999. The story begins with death—of a promise, a woman, and a country. Despite being told by her mother, Virmati, to donate her organs so someone will value her after she is gone, Ida chooses a traditional cremation when her mother passes away. Disruptions, failed promises, and insidious corollaries are at the very heart of the novel. Sharp and lucid, Kapur’s work is an important study of how the Independence movement informed the struggle for women’s economic and social freedom. 

A professor of English Literature at Miranda House, New Delhi, Kapur spent more than five years of research to complete Difficult Daughters, detailing episodes from the early Satyagraha movement to the devastating, gut-wrenching riots caused by the Partition. Ida, who had a complicated relationship with her “silent” and “bad-tempered” mother uses the funeral as a way to understand the woman. Taking a train to her family home in Amritsar, she has conversations with her mother’s siblings and old friends to learn about the life she lived before Ida was born. The novel traces three generations of women, from Ida to Virmati, and Virmati’s mother, Kasturi. Kapur is careful to insert political history in the backdrop of the novel, without overshadowing the inner domestic lives of these women, all uniquely crippled by their social circumstances. Her books have been adapted to various Indian soap operas, especially under Ekta Kapoor’s production house, but her writing is sparse and contained, unlike a typical melodramatic saga. Although this novel was written several decades after the Partition, it is reminiscent of writers from the sixties like Usha Priyamvada and Krishna Sobti, who smartly explore the sacrifices women are forced to make for the happiness of others.

Born as the oldest daughter to Kasturi in a traditional middle-class Amritsari family, Virmati is never allowed to be solely responsible for herself. Every decision she makes is a reflection of her upbringing. Any error may cause her to tarnish the reputation of her family or worse, ruin her younger sisters’ marriage prospects. Ida, childless and divorced, resembles her mother in more ways than she is ever aware of. 

Kasturi, who had eleven pregnancies, is given doctor’s orders to move to Dalhousie to rest. Virmati moves with her to take care of her mother and her youngest sibling, Paro. Domestic squabbles, sisters-in-law fighting over who gets a larger share of property, and men’s hostility and indecision make up much of the first half of the book.

Virmati’s main frustration is being unable to concentrate on her studies because of her babysitting duties. In her free time, she dreams of her fiancé—the one her family expects her to marry after she finishes her degree—until she meets her highly educated and alluring cousin, Shakuntala, from Lahore. “Here we are, fighting for the freedom of the nation, but women are still supposed to marry, and nothing else,” Shakuntala tells Virmati. Although she is scorned, Shakuntala carries herself with elegant dignity and doesn’t care for anyone’s approval. Inspired by her, Virmati starts replacing the dreams of her fiancé with dreams of education. However, she has little freedom outside of her domestic life and eventually befriends her shy and subservient neighbor, Ganga. 

Ganga’s husband is a charismatic Professor who has recently returned from England. Both of them were promised to each other at the age of three. Now, the Professor, stuck with an uneducated docile wife, starts lusting for Virmati, who returns his affections. The Professor—always referred to by his title rather than first name—is the type of man who believes he is liberated from gender stereotypes. Having unsuccessfully spent his time trying to educate his wife, he turns to Virmati, looking at her like she is Galatea to his Pygmalion. Their affair reaches a point of no return when Virmati refuses to marry her fiancé and tries to kill herself. She is locked away in her house, unable to escape, finding ways to talk to the Professor only through letters.

Kapur is a gifted social realist writer. Instead of spoon-feeding her wisdom or opinions to us, she presents subtle details that make us rethink our quick biases. If we feel pity for Virmati and hatred for her mother Kasturi, Kapur gives us glimpses into Kasturi’s life: “During Kasturi’s formal schooling, it was never forgotten that marriage was her destiny.” We learn that, despite having access to education, Kasturi’s life was intrinsically tied to her marital prospects. Duty is the only way she has learned to interact with the world. Similarly, if we start rooting for Virmati’s affair, Kapur reveals the Professor’s innate selfishness and hypocrisy. During Virmati’s imprisonment, despite receiving love letters from the Professor, she finds out that he and Ganga are expecting a child. Instead of promising her any kind of security, he gets angry at both Virmati and Ganga’s unhappiness, claiming to his friend that “these women do not understand my predicament.” Kapur’s writing style is compressed but tactile. She has the ability to hold us in the moment and her layered storytelling takes us deep into a bustling Indian household coping with their stresses and struggles even as their world is splitting apart. 

Virmati is finally allowed to escape into higher education. She moves to Lahore, a city bustling with political demonstrations and rallies, and befriends Swarna Lata, a keen supporter of women’s rights and Independence. Virmati continues her intense affair with the Professor, “still not knowing that for her love and autonomy could never coexist.” Kapur writes explicitly about forced sexual relations and illegal abortion, detailing their long and messy relationship. When the Professor finally succumbs to a marital union with Virmati, Ganga is devastated but insists on not yielding any power to the second wife. When he comes home, she has tea prepared for him. When he invites his friends over, she labors in the kitchen making fried delicacies for them. Kapur portrays how women attain legitimacy only through reproductive labor. Domestic tasks and caregiving have the duality of being unfair labor but also a source of power and pride. Virmati’s “win” is only met with doom. She is a prisoner in her marital home and her family cuts her off. She seems to exist solely for the sexual satisfaction of her husband. Ganga washes the Professor’s clothes, polishes his shoes, and gets his food ready whereas Virmati is not allowed to enter the kitchen or mingle with the other women in the family. Eventually, the Professor sends Virmati away to pursue a master’s in philosophy, a subject he deems worthy of her. She lives in a decrepit house, without friendship or filial love, growing more accustomed to her solitude. When the riots break households apart, she dedicates herself to the care of refugees. Ganga, like many at the time, crosses a newly constructed border into Pakistan and is never able to return. Families across the country weep over the loss of their loved ones. 

While the book intricately builds up Virmati’s life, it does not do so for the other characters. Ida remains a faceless narrator. Other strong characters, such as Virmati’s university friend Swarna Lata, who participates in the Satyagraha movement and accompanies her for a painful abortion, disappear entirely from the narrative when Virmati is no longer physically in their lives. Kasturi also remains a mystery. Despite the glimpses we get of her life and her struggles, her own patriarchal perspectives on Virmati’s life establish her as the unempathetic Indian mother stereotype. The book, spanning a little over 250 pages, is slow-paced, letting us feel the burden of Virmati’s struggles, but rushes toward the end. The aftermath of the Partition is portrayed as mere fragments recited by the family members with whom Ida speaks. Other influential characters in Virmati’s life—such as her grandfather, her cousin Shakuntala, and her younger sister Paro—never get fleshed out as independent characters and only appear to serve Virmati’s story. 

Virmati’s quest for independence has parallels with the freedom struggle. India’s hope for emancipation from British rule is fraught with a national identity crisis and gory violence. Despite gaining independence, the country suffers bloody repercussions, and so does Virmati. The only time a fractured family comes together as one is when they lament the overall state of affairs: “Is there no end to this needless violence and stabbing?” 

Difficult Daughters is a profound inquiry into intergenerational trauma, reproductive labor, the Independence Movement, and the Partition. While presenting the overwhelming and far-reaching outcomes of independence and emancipation, it also exposes the deep-rooted marginalization of women who assert their rights. As one of the few novels about women’s roles in and lives during the Partition, the novel recollects a history of liberation through a Virmati who eventually finds empowerment, however lonely, in ways that a majority of women in India can barely dream of even today.

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Suhasini Patni is a freelance writer based in Jaipur and Delhi. Currently, she is working on her postgraduate degree in linguistics at the University of Rochester, New York. Website.

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