CBR12 Bingo: “Book Club”
A woman in my local book club picked The Last Suttee (2017) by Madhu Bazaz Wangu. None of us knew anything about it, but it had 4.5 stars on both Amazon and Goodreads, which was promising. Plus, our group is always up for a little international, feminist reading, and this novel sounded both disturbing and intriguing.
Unfortunately, The Last Suttee was largely disappointing. Although I appreciate that Wangu was trying to bring attention to major injustice and cruelty, I found it very heavy handed. The dialogue was very unnatural, the characters felt one-dimensional, and the plot was both unrealistic and convenient. My book club could not figure out the high ratings on Amazon, and then we realized there were only 33 reviews. Spoilers follow.
Our main character, Kumud, is a woman who escaped the rural area of Neela Nagar and now runs an orphanage for girls. She has an unnecessary and barely imagined romantic relationship with a doctor who lives at the orphanage and helps care for the girls. Kumud gets a mysterious phone call one day. The caller tells her that there will be another suttee in Neela Nagar, and she needs to return to try to stop it.
Even in present day India where suttee has been illegal since 1829, it has still occurred in rural areas. It involves a recent widow burning herself to death on her husband’s funeral pyre. Wangu does do a good job in describing, in detail, how this could still occur. There can be incredible expectation and pressure from the husband’s family. Not only does the husband’s family view the widow as a burden, they believe their family will be blessed for seven generations (or something like that) if she commits the sacred act of suttee. There is a lot of ritual surrounding the event and it seems that the widow is heavily drugged to keep her from resisting. With no education or way to provide for herself, and her husband’s family unwilling to care for her, she often has no other choice.
Kumud is haunted by the idea of suttee. When she was a little girl, she saw her aunt heavily drugged and then killed in the fire of her husband’s funeral pyre. Unfortunately, this scene loses some of its emotional power because Wangu does not build up any kind of relationship between the two of them. And then Kumud felt the pressure herself when her new husband died of AIDS as a young man.
Kumud travels to Neela Nagar and gets back in touch with her old teacher and his new wife. Her teacher is progressive in that he wants to teach both women and lower caste children. Kumud is able to sneak in and talk with Parvati, the young widow. Parvati has been convinced that suttee is her best and only option. She wants to be revered for her sacrifice. Kumud tries to explain the realities of what will happen to her.
In the end, there is a lot of confusion. The fire is lit early and Kumud believes she is too late. But a powerful man in the town, Raja Umraodev somehow saves Parvati. Kumud ends up taking Parvati back to the orphanage (maybe as a teacher/helper?). And then Kumud gets together with her doctor friend who is in such a small part of the book, it feels very tacked on.
Although the concept is intriguing, I think this book suffers in its execution. For instance, the dialogue was unrealistic and preachy. Out of the blue, Kumud would talk to her old teacher in paragraphs about why suttee is so barbaric. Obviously, this argument is for the reader because her old teacher already knows and agrees with all of this. But even though I wholeheartedly agreed with everything she was saying, it immediately took me out of the story. I also felt that Wangu was trying to put too much into the book without enough foundation to make it meaningful. The love story between Kumud and the doctor was undeveloped and unnecessary. There’s a story of a marriage and a little girl brought into the orphanage at the beginning of the book that goes nowhere. Kumud’s relationship with her aunt was not developed enough to have as large of an emotional impact as that scene could have had. And Kumud’s own first marriage felt out of character and unrealistic. The book is from the point of view of an Indian woman with a college education and real choices in her life, but it doesn’t delve very deeply into the lives of women with no education, no power, and no choices.
I found the foreword to this book the most interesting and well-written part of this book. Wangu was partly inspired to write this by the notorious death of Roop Kanwar in 1987. Roop Kanwar was only 18 years old and married for 8 months when her 24-year-old husband died. Accounts differ, but there were reports that she ran away and hid in a barn. Her husband’s family found her, beat her, drugged her, and forced her to die in the fire. The cruelty is astonishing. I wish Wangu had written a non-fiction account of suttee. She obviously knows a lot about the subject. Unfortunately, when she fictionalized the subject, I was distracted by the bad dialogue and other problems with the narration. Instead I would recommend the much more haunting and powerful Girls Burn Brighter by Shobha Rao.
You can find all of my reviews on my blog.