I've just finished re-reading Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things because I am thinking about assigning it for a class next term. Early on in the book, Rahel, arguably its main character finds herself married ("she drifted into marriage") to a feckless American who seems not to understand her whatsoever. The husband finds himself "offended" by the look in Rahel's eyes when they had sex.
"He put it somewhere between indifference and despair. He didn't know that in some places, like the country that Rahel came from, various kinds of despair competed for primacy. And that personal despair could never be desperate enough. That something happened when personal turmoil dropped by at the wayside shrine of the vast violent, circling, driving ridiculous, insane, unfeasible, public turmoil of a nation. That Big God howled like a hot wind, and demanded obeisance. Then Small God (cozy and contained, private and limited) came away cauterized, laughing numbly at his own temerity. Inured by the confirmation of his own inconsequence, he became resilient and truly indifferent. Nothing mattered much. Nothing much mattered. And the less it mattered, the less it mattered. It was never important enough. Because Worse Things had happened. In the country that she came from, poised forever between the terror of war and the horror of peace. Worse Things kept happening."And for much of the first half of the book politics - large scale disaster - provides the backdrop to the unfolding personal disaster on which Roy focuses. Indeed, politics intrudes in various, almost always destructive, ways into the lives of her cast of characters. One important way it does so is through the operation of legal and informal restrictions on the freedom of the women in the story whose options are limited severely by lack of educational opportunity, legal restrictions on inheritance, domestic violence, sexual harassment, the stigma of divorce.
Then this evening I came across a review of an exhibition entitled "Beloved Daughters" of work by Fazal Sheikh now showing at the Museum of Photographic Arts in San Diego. Sheikh focuses on the same litany of restrictions that Roy highlights and the way they impact the lives of large numbers of Indian women. The image I've lifted above is of the city of Vrindavan which is a city to which widows, having been rendered worthless by the death of their husbands, exile themselves in hopes of escaping the relentlessly cyclical operation of death and re-birth. Although many of Sheikh's portraits of women and girls are powerful, this scene conveys a remarkable desolation. It suggests precisely how the personal turmoil in women's lives is structured and distributed by forces that operate and persist on a much larger scale.