WHERE EVERY FAMILY wants a hundred sons, but not even one daughter, where infant girls are killed using many ingenious methods, or even simpler, not allowed to be born, in such a land, what is the future of womankind?
Manjula Padmanabhan’s recently published novel, Escape is the dystopian vision of such a society where the no-girls policy has been taken to its extreme; for now, it is not only individual families that conspire to kill women, it is the government itself that has officially outlawed and exterminated women.
In this “world” (a country masquerading as the whole world, even as the rest of the world ostracises it for its crimes), a coup by clone technology wielding generals has eliminated the ‘need’ for women, since they see women primarily as ‘breeders’, and weak breeders at that, who cannot compete with the perfection of clone technology. What then is the fate of the lone girl who has survived in this world, not knowing even that she is to become a woman?
Escape is the story of this lone girl, Meiji, and what is remarkable is that it traces two journeys at once. Meiji must set out on a perilous journey with Youngest, the youngest of the three uncles who have raised her, if she is to have any chance of survival. At the same time, on the cusp of adolescence, she must also understand what a woman is, in the absence of any other living specimens to guide or even assure her that to be woman is to be normal. For, in this world, man has become default and woman is a relic of a past world, a species of monster that needs to be made extinct. In some ways, this inner journey of Meiji’s, with its confusion and bitterness, is more exciting than the physical journey through the wasteland, which never comes close to being really threatening. The inner journey on the other hand is perilous, for, having only vaguely heard of women (and their attendant evils), Meiji comes dangerously close to self-loathing on realising that she is the last of a tribe that has been exterminated.
Yesterday you told me that when I finish growing up completely, I’ll be a monster,” she said. “And now you’re telling me that I’m the only one left in our world?
When it is hard for her to even visualize a world where women were human beings, she must make another leap to come to terms with the changes happening in her own body and understand that womanhood brings with it some unique abilities.
Youngest has a journey of his own to make, both as Meiji’s escort and protector, and towards understanding and controlling his own sexual impulses. Some scenes are not easy to stomach — instinctively, I cringed at the description of sexual attraction that Youngest feels towards Meiji even as he fights it. Yet, in a world that has killed women, Youngest is one small symbol of hope — of a man who can not only lust, but also feel, love and remember. When he recalls the cousin whom he loved,
She was everything to me. Mother, sister, wife, lover — everything mixed up together. It used to be considered shameful and indecent to have thoughts like that for family members but the time for shame was over…Our time together was beyond imagining. We didn’t hide it from the others. It was too pure, too beautiful, to be snuffed out.
There is no easy closure to this journey, but inspite of leaving us with no answers, Escape is a very worthwhile read both for its many layered story and for the way it has integrated a question that all of us who see India’s declining sex ratios must ask.
Publisher: Picador India
Price: Rs. 295