Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Book Review: Daughter by Court Order, by Ratna Vira

Since 2012, 11th October has been celebrated as the year of the girl child. Women face discrimination in so many spheres all over the world and India has one of the worst track records when it comes to fair treatment of women. This discrimination exists not only in public spaces, but also inside most Indian households. In fact, it tends to be much more pronounced at home, with girls receiving step-motherly treatment in everything ranging from food to education to toys. One would tend to believe that this discrimination would be much more pronounced amongst the working classes and that the economically well-off sections of society would not discriminate against their daughters. Recently released debutant author Ratna Vira’s novel Daughter by Court Order suggests that it may not be so and that even among the rich, daughters receives a raw deal.

Aranya or Arnie is smart, pretty and bright as a button, but has a mother who seems to be straight from hell. Not only does Kamini dote on her effeminate son Randeep, but she also seems to hate Arnie with a passion. To start with, when Arnie was born (in France), Kamini didn’t want her to survive. Luckily for Arnie, her paternal grandfather Eshwar Dhari, a famous politician, willed otherwise and sent his daughter, Chhoti Phua to get Arnie to India. There are a number of instances where Arnie is shown to have suffered at the hands of her mother, who constantly put her down. Not so surprising in India, except that Kamini is supposed to be a feminist who publicly espouses the cause of women and their rights, all the time.

Arnie’s paternal grandfather is not only a successful politician, but is also frightfully rich. Her mother’s family, the Sharmas, on the other hand, came over to India from West Punjab during the partition and are shown to be not so well off, though quite shrewd and tough as nails. Well, to cut a long story short, Arnie’s grandfather has left behind a lavish mansion at Civil Lines, the house where Arnie grew up in and because Arnie’s mother does not want Arnie to inherit her share of the property, Arnie does not find a place in the family tree which has been filed with the court in connection with the partition of the property. When Arnie does find out about her mother’s deceit, it is too late. Or is it?

Arnie is a woman who has suffered a lot. A divorcee, Arnie has brought up her two kids singlehandedly after her husband Krish walked out on her. Arnie is torn with doubts as she prepares to fight her own kith and kin. Fortunately for her, she has a number of friends, including ex-husband Krish. Kamini is tough and she doesn’t hesitate to play dirty, but luckily for Arnie, India’s much criticised legal system delivers, and that too, with relative speed. The judges who hear her cases are honest and though Arnie is not able to hire a battery of lawyers like her mother and other relatives, the team she has assembled is top-notch. Many people help Arnie secretly, sending her documents and other evidence secretly by courier. In fact, Arnie even receives a visit from a Pakistani woman whose family suffered a lot on account of the Sharmas, Kamini's relatives, in pre-Partition West Punjab. There are threats to her life and towards the end, Arnie has a narrow escape from an acid attack, but Arnie never turns back.

The second half of the novel is especially riveting, as the action shifts between courts in Delhi and Ranchi. Towards the end, there is a sort of reconciliation with Krish who helps her in her quest for justice, but there is no doubt that Arnie’s fight is her own and her success, almost entirely the result of her determination, perseverance and single-mindedness. One starts to feel sorry for Arnie from the outset and as one learns more and more about Kamini and her viciousness, it is inevitable that one roots for Arnie and her success in claiming her rightful share of the property.

Author Ratna Vira is the daughter of Nalini Singh and S.P.N. Singh, the son of C.P.N. Singh, former Governor of UP and the vice chancellor of Patna University. Nalini Singh is the sister of Arun Shourie, the well-known and highly reputed politician and former journalist. It has been reported on a number of blogs and other websites that Arnie’s story bears an uncanny resemblance to Ratna Vira’s own life. Arnie’s parental grandfather Eshwar Dhari, C.P.N. Singh’s counterpart is shown as the Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh and the vice chancellor of Ranchi University. Arnie’s Yudi mama who betrays her, bears a striking similarity to Arun Shourie. Was Nalini Singh as nasty to Ratna Vira and Kamini is shown to be towards Arnie? Was Ratna Vira embroiled in a family property dispute like Arnie and did she have to fight her family as well as the system to gain her rightful inheritance? Did Arun Shourie betray Ratna Vira’s trust in such a family property dispute? Interestingly, Ratna Vira has not denied any of these parallels.

It is surprising that both Nalini Singh and Arun Shourie, who are usually never tongue-tied or at a loss for words, have not commented on these real-life parallels. Their silence seems to suggest that at least some of Daughter by Court Order is based on truth.

It is a not so well known fact that five years ago, Ratna Vira instituted a scholarship at St. Stephens in memory of her grandfather C. P. N. Singh and each year for the last five years, a meritorious female student with financial needs has been receiving a substantial sum of money from Ratna Vira.

Daughter by Court Order is written in elegant English and is, on the whole, an exciting read. More importantly, Ratna Vira's tale is bound to inspire millions of women, in India and elsewhere, to stand up for their rights and to keep fighting till they have won.

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