Daughter by Court Order- A new look at mother-daughter conflict in contemporary fiction

NAT
India-Books/Culture

New Delhi
The complex mother-daughter relationship cannot be defined in simplistic terms of umbilical love and natural animosity between two women – who are jealous of their mutual feminine. “There are just too many daughters admitting to having a difficult relationship with the mother,” says writer Rosjke Hasseldine, the author of “The Female Silent Scream Revolution”— an interview-based analytical treatise of the forces shaping the mother-daughter engagements in the contemporary times when emotional awareness and needs are more heightened.
History is replete with examples of turbulent mother-daughter associations in which the mother fails to rise beyond personal inadequacies in relating to the daughter— passing on the inequities, unfulfilled desires, expectations, repression and trauma of invisibility to the daughter in the process. The daughter in turn claims that she is misunderstood, neglected and even rejected by the mother, who is oblivious to the generational divide that separates the daughter from the mother. The mother continues to see in the daughter an extended reflection of her own life as in “Pride and Prejudice” where Elizabeth Bennet’s (Mr Darcy’s wife) overpowering and firm persona ruffles her mother Mrs Bennet’s feathers or in August: Osage County ( a popular Pulitzer Prize-winning American social drama by Tracey Letts) in which mother Violet Weston, a cancer-afflicted drug addict clashes with her daughters after her husband Sam disappears and commits suicide. The family spills dirty linen at Sam’s funerary dinner — in a typical suburban psychological soap opera of extra-marital affairs, incest, deprivation and emotional angst as the American-Indian cook-cum live in help Johnna, whom the family hires, listens in stoic resignation of her own relegated identity – in the suburbs of a “hot” Oklahoma in August.
At the heart of every troubled mother-daughter relationship lies a clamour to be heard — a resonance of emotional needs between the two women, both shackled by conventions, entrenched social codes and the invisibility in the bustle of filial and social activity as silent care-givers. The mother ends up perceiving the daughter as a threat and the daughter fears the life which the mother maps for her – a skewed gender role of subservience and acceptance for the woman.
Senior corporate executive-turned writer Ratna Vira (daughter of noted journalist Nalini Singh and SPN Singh) builds an emotional roller-coaster of war between a manipulative and overbearing mother Kamini and her free-thinking daughter Aranya, in her debut novel, “Daughter by Court Order” (Fingerprint).
Aranya, the protagonist, is an anguished daughter, who goes to court to wrest her share of her grandfather’s inheritance and identity as a daughter in a dramatic battle when she discovers that her mother, father and brother Randy, kept her identity a secret in the family tree and in court to deprive Aranya her share of her dadaji’s (grandfather’s) expansive estates. A seemingly innocuous remark over a cup of tea turns into Aranya’s redemption and victory of filial and social injustice- against the girl child, the scion of a powerful family. A cesspool of emotions, half truths, betrayals and the unspooling of the family’s dirty secrets threaten to disrupt unwieldy peace and sanity Aranya had built around herself as a single (and successful) mother of two children.
The mastermind of the heinous conspiracy, as Aranya proves, is her mother, “who sees her in her birth the curse of her own life and wished her dead from the day she was born”. The conflict between the mother and daughter in Ratna Vira’s novel is “violent and emotionally knee-jerk in which the mother abuses the daughter in every confrontation, most of the time without provocation”. It draws on the protagonist’s perception of her mother as the “goddess kali, a dark virulent force, who is mean, intimidating and disruptive”.
Aranya, an intelligent and sensitive child, has access to good education, creative freedom, loyal friends and the right to live on her own independent terms — realities that her mother cannot reconcile to. Ratna Vira raises important questions about the status of the girl child in India, the right to inheritance for daughters and the debate over the role of mothers and wives as conventional care-givers in large feudal families, which are opening door to education, gender equality and modernism. Mothers can make or break their daughter’s lives as vamps or angels – guiding and misguiding at the same time. In Ratna’s novel, mother Kamini tries to break her daughter’s life by undermining the girl’s confidence and snubbing her. Kamini resents the affection showered on Aranya by her grand-father. She is unable to tame her daughter’s “powerful” spirit as the “faceless” daughter languishing in her mother’s shadow. Aranya in a strange tweak of fate is declared “Kamini and her husband’s” daughter by a court order.
Battles such as these are rare, though Ratna claims that “history and literature are full of stories of wars between mothers and daughters”. “Aranya has been on my mind for a long time — but it took me time to figure out the book because I wanted to tell lots of stories through Aranya. One of the reasons why I wrote the book was to tell the world that a daughter was so many things — so important to the societal future. The book did not have a specific trigger point – it just came together. Each one of us have a book in us,” Ratna told this writer in an interview.
Ratna said the story “might be imaginary” but the “battles between mother and daughter over identity, rights and emotional recognition exists in societies”. “They are, however, not much talked about or discussed. It could be anyone’s story. Arundhati’s story, Priyanka’s story — the way they we treat our daughters in every household,” Ratna pointed out.
The writer said in the elite echelons of the society, the gender battles were silent screams and more complex than in the grassroots and in the lower economic strata — where the woman can stand up with her hands on her hip and make herself heard. She can scream. But in the upper strata, how many women find the courage to talk about it? From the cradle to the cooking pot to the grave, we are encouraging women to ne dependent. We don’t give them rights in our society. Education is still a part-time business because daughters are expected to marry,” Ratna said.
The writer pointed out that in her story “the root of the conflict was in the daughter breaking out of the mould, much to the displeasure of the mother and other members of the traditional extended household who sees in her fruition of her own unrequited dreams”. It speaks resentment, hostility, anger, jealousy and intrigue to push the privileged gild child to the back-burner.
The book, despite its narrative potential, complex familial psychologies sociological relevance and gender engagements- fails to flesh out the characters of the mothers and daughters are complete flesh-and –blood personas in their complexities and disturbed functioning of the minds. Ratna, however, makes up for the incomplete “character investigations” with description, mood, details, colours, pace and action in her narrative that flows.
The emotional riddles are intense and scream on the readers’ face. “The theme is universal,” Ratna said. It can happen to anyone around the world- why only India?
In a paper, “The Emotional Crisis Between Mothers and Daughters”, author Rosjke Hasseldine says “how mothers and daughters get on reflects how emotionally healthy it is for female within the family, community and society”. The conflicts and misunderstandings between mothers and daughters are a mirror reflection of the degree of silence around the woman’s emotional needs and how they are treated are human beings. In families, where women’s voices – and especially their emotional needs — are heard and are treated as real and important and where girls grow up feeling entitled to expect others to listen to them and respect their voices, the mother-daughter conflicts are much less”.
The denial of female emotional needs is lethal for a woman’s emotional well-being and mother-daughter relationship. In India, the silent battles between an emotionally starved-mother fitted into the role of a lifelong care-giver and a daughter is prevalent in almost every family. Economic constraints, disparity and selective access to meaningful education that imbues intellectual clarity to intellects and thought processes – make their conflicts macabre and wordless. The daughter and mothers suffer in silence trapped in a bitter shell of accusations and denials.
“Where rows (mother-daughter) are concerned, the flash points are legion — from the mundane, silly … to the darker environs of the pre-teen heartland, writer Barbara Ellen says in her article, “Curse of the Mummy” (The Guardian). Social psychologist Terry Apter addresses the mother daughter conflict in her book, “You Don’t Really Know Me: Why Mothers and Daughters Fight and Both Can Win”. The writer says nothing can jeopardize a woman’s confidence as does the birth of her children.
Motherhood makes a woman insecure, says social psychologists, contrary to the centuries-old contention that “the event of childbirth is empowering for the woman”. While the trauma and the fear of body mutilation and memories of pain can be causes of lasting bitterness in a woman’s psyche, the apprehension that a child – a girl- hijack the mother’s position of pre-eminence disrupts the mother’s gender sensitivity towards the daughter. Mothers are enraged when daughters secede – to negotiate new free spaces.
“My narrative will not be your’s. I will live my life. You have to live with your demons,” daughter Aranya tells mother Kamini in her Ratna’s novel. The personas morph, melt and are reborn as gender awareness breaks new battle grounds.
Madhusree Chatterjee

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