Female infanticide is one of the pressing issues of our times, even as modernity is thought to have ended patriarchy. More worryingly, women are the culprits as much as men, and this is a sad reality of our times as it has been in our history.
Set in 1871, Hyma Goparaju’s novel ‘The Abandoned Daughter’ explores the sensitive issue of female infanticide in British India. I caught up with her to quiz her about the research she had to undertake to lend authenticity to the milieu and bring alive the narration. Read the full interview here.
- Female infanticide is as prevalent in cities as in villages even now, as it was years back. What prompted you then to choose a village as your setting, and set it almost 150 years ago?
In recent times, female foeticide has manifested itself into an urban crime due to the gross misuse of technology. But, a hundred years ago, even when there was no technology to let us know what was happening in society, people committed infanticide to get rid of a female child. We have a limited understanding of how this issue was perceived by society earlier. Moreover, since most people in our country were living in rural areas in those times, I thought ‘The Abandoned Daughter’ would be believable in a village setting. Also, social norms and practices were extremely harsh and rigid then and that’s what prompted me to base the story in the second half of the nineteenth century.
Though the story of ‘The Abandoned Daughter’ is primarily set in a rural area, many characters have a strong connection with a bustling city located nearby. The investigating officers themselves visit the village when they learn that there are no baby girls in that region. Although the narrative is set about 150 years ago, I strongly feel that the theme is still relevant because of the spiraling offenses against the female child.
- Since you are Hyderabad based, which is a teeming modern metropolis, how did you reconcile your lived experience with the plot whose characters live in villages? Was some research involved, or was it a purely imaginative enterprise?
Well, I think the wonderful part about a creative process such as writing is that one can travel through time zones and geographies. But the real challenge for an author certainly lies in getting the research right. Yes, I did spend a considerable amount of time researching various areas such as female infanticide, the way life is lived in rural settings, the food, the lingo, etc. However, a lot of times, as it happened in the case of my book too, not all information was available. This is where an author’s imagination takes over. In the case of ‘The Abandoned Daughter’, it has been a combination of both research and imagination. The fictional part of the book is certainly overarching and is built around the fact that when the first census was conducted in our subcontinent around 1871, it was found that certain provinces had no baby girls at all. The rampant practice of female infanticide was suspected to be the chief reason. When I read about it for the first time, I thought it was quite disturbing and wanted to know more. And when my search for more information hit a dead-end, I decided to use my imagination and spin a story around the issue.
- The background stories of Gomti and Gorma rescue them from being outrightly evil. However, one might also argue then that the novel seems to suggest there is no way to break the patriarchal circle. How would you respond to that claim?
The novel is built on the premise that women, for so long, have become such an integral part of the patriarchal system, that in the process they have been causing harm to members of their own gender. If you read the novel completely, you’ll understand why Gorma and Gomti turned out to be so cruel. Now, this was not done to provide a justification or give a reprieve, but to emphasize the psychology of humans that repeats patterns of exploitative behavior. As you rightly mentioned, it is quite hard to break the patriarchal cycle because of how many beliefs and practices are built and patronized. I do believe that it is difficult for any system to change overnight. Though a lot of things have certainly got better for women in recent times, even today, we hear of little girls being buried alive or women abetting illegal activities such as female foeticide. Which is why, in ‘The Abandoned Daughter’, women are the perpetrators, women are the victims and women are also the rescuers. There is no single hero or heroine, or even a final winner in the story. Those characters that use their wisdom in the right perspective emerge as saviors, not just for themselves, but for the coming generations too.
- Although there is a smattering of dialect here and there, on the whole, the characters speak in standard English. How important is the choice of language to you in making the characters come alive?
Though the book is written in English, I wanted to bring alive the local flavor and dialect so a reader can live with the characters, hence the smattering of the rural lingo. The challenge to an author is certainly compounded when the author is writing in a language other than where the story has happened or even when the narrative is set in a different time zone that a reader has not experienced. However, there are numerous examples of books that are written in English which have so beautifully brought forth a story, without for once losing the local touch. I believe that more than the choice of the language it is the power of expression that makes fiction come alive.
- How was your experience of publishing with Vishwakarma Publications?
Vishwakarma Publications have been extremely supportive of my book. I am truly happy that the publishing house has been able to connect instantly with the essence of the book. Also, the fact that the book was unveiled at the Pune International Literary Festival, of which Vishwakarma Publications is a sponsor, gave the book good exposure. I am confident that we will have a good journey.
- What is the most difficult part of your artistic process?
Identifying and working on a plot that will hold a reader, setting the characters and of course the research behind it, and finally, editing and re-editing the draft, can be excruciating but fun too. Having said that, different forms of writing have their difficulties. With fiction, it certainly is about meeting the challenge to hold a reader’s interest in a manner that he/she would want to keep turning pages while at the same time wishing that the book would never end.
- Who are your favourite authors?
Goscinny and Uderzo (creators of Asterix and Obelix), Enid Blyton, Ayn Rand, Amitav Ghosh, Khaled Hosseini, Arundhati Roy and many more.