Deconstructing de Beauvoir and the idea of femininity
An elegant examination of the lives of a gynaecologist and six of her patients, Priyamvada N. Purushotham’s debut novel is a fast-paced, enjoyable read, writes Sharanya
SHARANYA 10th Nov 2012
Priyamvada N. Purushotham
he epigraph of The Purple Line, Priyamvada Purushotham's charming first novel, consists of oft-quoted lines from Simone de Beauvoir's celebrated Second Sex: "One is not born a woman: one becomes one." Judith Butler remarks that Beauvoir's thesis distinguishes between sex and gender where sex refers to the anatomical aspects of the female body, and gender refers to the cultural meaning that the body comes to possess. The Purple Line appears to attempt a demonstration of Beauvoir's formulation through an examination of the lives of Dr. Mrinalini Krishnamoorthy, a gynaecologist and obstetrician in 1962 Madras, and her six patients who are, as one discovers through Mrinalini's funny and engaging first-person narration, plagued with problems in various permutations and combinations of that traditionally-accepted, tiresome indicator of femininity: the (in)ability to conceive a child.
The patients hail from a variety of backgrounds. Zubeida, a Muslim woman, longs for a girl after having conceived a series of boys. Megha, a Marwari woman, desires the opposite for the sake of her ferociously orthodox family. Tulsi works in advertising, has a "terribly attractive husband" and stands upside-down after sex to overcome her infertility. Anjolie, a French-Indian performance-artist who looks "like the technicolour lion in the MGM logo" is trying to conceive with her husband but simultaneously having an affair with Tulsi's husband. Pooja is a young schoolgirl who wants an abortion after an accidental pregnancy. Leela is deemed to be the perfect Shakespearean sonnet produced from the mythical hundred monkeys drumming away on typewriters for centuries; one is not quite sure what plagues her except the agony of having an apparently ordered, secure life that is perceived to be perfect. Mrinalini observes these patients, getting involved only in their medical lives and resting as a lone spectator while narrating the details of their lives outside the consultation room. She attempts to braid them together, perhaps a little forcibly sometimes, for these characters do not exist in negatives of each other and their paths do not cross significantly—and they certainly seem to impact Mrinalini's own life only in so far as she has curated their stories as a colourfully demonstrative spectrum of womanhood in modern India.
It is this aspect of The Purple Line that simultaneously proves to be its strength and failing. Communal identities surface only in so far as to be subverted or thwarted—Megha's family finally learns to accept her girls when the last one she delivers almost dies due to lack of care, and Zubeida's orthodox family prevents her from studying further but she nurtures her love for Western literature and film in private. Leela, however, appears to be pricked by her Tamil-Brahmin family's orthodox leanings only occasionally—for most part, she is reproached by the narrator in a tone that slides between pity and piety for not "falling"; Anjolie is portrayed conventionally as the liberated Anglo-Indian, "modern" woman whose problems include infidelity and a snoozing existential spirit. Tulsi and Pooja, similarly, are women who make progressive choices like adoption and abortion, and go on to succeed in their careers. These identities appear to exist more as carefully-constructed outlines etched to achieve a certain didactical end and less as fluid lives that assimilate the rhizomatic presence and manifestations of gender in daily life.
t is an inevitable slant, one would suppose, considering the premise on which the novel is based: the purple line, the line whose presence on a pregnancy test indicates that a woman is pregnant, is the dominant presence in the lives of all these women. All of them, except for Pooja and Leela, want children; Pooja, given her wealthy background and modern sensibilities, is privileged enough to get rid of the one she isn't supposed to have at her age and Leela happily embraces the children she wanted to have much later: one wonders what would have happened should Pooja have chosen to keep her child and Leela grown to hate the children she didn't want. The link between pregnancy and cis-womanhood is one that runs strongly, and the notion of womanhood that all the characters eventually embrace is defined solely in terms of and more importantly, restricted to their ability to conceive, and is not as Beauvoirian as one would assume. The subplots tie themselves up neatly and the women who emerge lead perfectly normal lives, without any loose ends or imperfections. The women they become do not breach essentialist notions of womanhood; they'd rather die than be led astray.
Mrinalini herself proves to be the most interesting character of the lot: her own life is not as ordered or cathartic as the rest of her patients'. She is pro-choice, pro-adoption, against sex-selective abortion and is wary of IVF procedures but one cannot help but wonder at the dichotomy that exists between some of these empowering beliefs and the fact that she bemoans her fate as a discarded, incomplete woman instead of embracing the choices she made.
It must be acknowledged, finally, that The Purple Line remains a pleasurable read throughout: Purushotam's writing is witty and suave, and displays the admirable quality of unravelling the plot at just the right pace; fast enough to keep the reader curious till the very end and slow enough to ensure that its merriness is savoured. Keep a lid on temptations to succumb to singular, privileged notions of womanhood, and the ride through the novel is a breezy, enjoyable one.