Savitri strives to be an ideal, submissive wife to her cruel husband Ramani and endures years of abuse before running away, but eventually realizes she can't change her circumstances and comes back to protect her children and accept her only real option in life. This is one of Narayan's definitely darker novels and one of the few where he seriously examines the gender inequalities of traditional Indian society in the mid-twentieth century. I always thought it was very progressive coming from a male upper-caste author who comes from a background of privilege. And while all of Narayan's characters are upper-caste, he also tries to explore social inequity in his own way. In The Dark Room, he does this through the lens of domestic violence.
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The story follows a middle-class but upper-caste family in Narayan's favorite fictional setting of Malgudi. The husband and wife pair are Ramani and his wife Savitri. Ramini works as a secretary at an insurance company and is always talked down to and disrespected (in his eyes) at work, so he comes home and takes it out on his wife. He beats his wife, criticizes her, ignores her, and sneers at her, and never lets her make a single decision on her own. Savitri is a woman of sensitive temperament but has been raised to be a good Indian wife, so she tries to shelter her two daughters and maintain their innocence, while never raising her voice or her hands against her husband. The girls and their mother are completely subjected to Ramani's whims and fancies, from what they will eat to whether they will eat to who they will invite as guests to their home.
Throughout all this, Savitri is placed on a pedestal as she silently endures the abuse and tries to keep her family together. She is beautiful, self-sacrificing, devoted and obedient - the ideal Indian wife. However much she hungers for Ramani's love, she never even gets a smile from him, and neither do his love-starved daughters. Ramani, bored by tormenting his placid wife, eventually starts having an affair with a beautiful woman at his office named Shanta Bai, and even this insult Savitri convinces herself to bear quietly when her neighbor tells her about it, even though it eats away at her. She it too terrified of Ramani's rages to do anything, and the years of abuse have given her such low self-esteem that she blames herself for the affair. But when Ramani's treatment of her worsens and worsens, ignoring every desperate attempt by Savitri to save the marriage, she finally snaps. She throws her wedding necklace down (the wedding necklace is as significant in India as the wedding ring is in the west) and pours out years worth of rage and grief to Ramani, lamenting that she has no rights in society even if she wanted to assert them, and that she is chattel till the day she dies. So the solution is to die. Savitri runs from the house in tears to throw herself into the Sarayu River. She drowns herself but floats to the surface, and is seen by a local crook named Mari who is moved by pity and pulls her out of the water, pumping the water from her lungs. He asks her why she tried to kill herself and tells her that there in always hope in life, and always another path. The crook's wife, Ponni, cleans Savitri up and advises her to find solace in a life devoted to spiritual contemplation. And so Savitri starts to work in a temple, hoping to find peace as a Hindu nun. Instead, she finds herself molested and eyed by other men, and constantly at odds with the sexist priest who hates seeing a woman working in a temple - a place dominated by the male Brahmins of the Hindu clergy. Disillusioned and depressed, Savitri begins to miss her daughters and wonders if she was selfish and irresponsible to leave them, and wonders how badly they are being treated by Ramani. She realizes that all her attempts to escape were useless, because as a woman in this society, she has no place at all except where her family is, whether she likes it or not. And running away will not protect her daughters or bring her peace. Resigned, and oddly at peace with her lot in life, a quiet and contemplative Savitri returns to Malgudi and to her home. Nothing changes. Ramani is spitefully triumphant that his rebellious wife has at last learned her place, and continues to behave as he always did. And Savitri continues to tolerate it.
Best part of story, including ending:
I loved the name that was chosen for the protagonist. In Hindu mythology, Savitri is a woman who sacrifices everything, including her life, to save her not-so-bright husband. For a long time she was considered the ideal Hindu wife - a suffering, martyr-like, obedient, and submissive woman. It is no coincidence that R.K. Narayan chose the name for a passive victim of domestic abuse who has been conditioned to be submissive to a man.
Best scene in story:
I was in tears in the scene where Savitri tries to drown herself in despair. it was just such a hopeless and painful moment where you can see exactly what was going on in her mind and her realization that she was powerless to change her circumstances.
Opinion about the main character:
I hated her self-pitying attitude, but admired her for putting her love for her children first.