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A Saga Of Partitioned Women

Book review-difficult daughters.
“The tradition that refuses to entertain doubt, or remains impervious to new thoughts and ideas, becomes a prison rather than a sustaining life force.”

Some books are friends, others teachers. This one came as a life-changing experience.

The hauntingly beautiful portrayal of women’s anguish and sufferings in the pre-independence period has left my thinking revitalized.
Amritsar born Manju Kapur is an Indian novelist, whose first novel, “Difficult Daughters” had won the 1999 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, best first book, Europe and South Asia. She has studied M.A from Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada (in 1972) and an M. Phil from Delhi University. Now, she teaches English at Delhi University under the name Manjul Kapur Dalmia.

Difficult Daughters is about educating daughters, who, after they learn to think for themselves, begin questioning the basic values and hypocrisy of the society. The story moves between the demands of modernity and set traditions. The novel is set in an straight, high-minded, middle-class Punjabi family in the outset of 1930s and ’40s during partition. It throws light on the conservatism prevailing in Amritsar. The climax is centered around Virmati, who seeks something beyond wedlock.

The tale starts with narrator, Ida, traveling back to her hometown to get answers of her mother, Virmati’s past that have been nagging her ever since her mother’s death.  From friends and family she finds that Virmati was the eldest of eleven children,  born to a respectable family in Amritsar.
She had no meaning to her life except taking care of her siblings ,untill a charming , charismatic and respected professor (Harish) moves in as a tenant with wife and a daughter and starts teaching in Virmati’s college.

It was rather beautiful; the way Harish put her insecurities to sleep ,the way he looked into her eyes and starved all the fears and metamorphosed Virmati from a lifeless robot to a visionary and independent woman. Virmati finally married professor against the will of her family.

She soon finds herself abandoned and boycotted by her own family and living as a second isolated wife in Harish’s home. She becomes conscious of the fact that she has wasted all her education and flair.
She realizes that going against her mother was not worth it, and fate soon puts her in her mother’s shoes when Ida marries someone without asking for Virmati’s consent.


The title , ‘Difficult Daughters’ has a hidden question mark in it if you ask me, which makes me apprehend that was it really the daughters that were difficult or was it the society that choked her aspirations everyday and made her the bearer of patriarchal constraints and expectations for coming generation of daughters.

Manju Kapur, truly tries to convey how far we have come as a society and how far we still have to go. She sets up Strum und Drang of events that eventually lead to a bitter-sweet ending.

This story really promises to remain engraved in your memory for a long time!

On the other hand I felt the frustration of being forced to observe siblings, to mother them once you never had the selection.

Choice is something many people take for granted.

Disobedient Daughters could alright be the title, and when our main character Virmati falls crazy with a temptation (married man) you recognize it’s getting to go sour.


For many readers with the liberty to stupidly love where we chose, and blaze a trail anywhere we please it’s often hard to imagine the suppression of the self. I find with this novel, the treasure isn’t so much in love as it is in the struggle to chose your own way.

Tradition are often a gorgeous thing, but it also can murder the soul. It’s not just in Indian culture that ladies were kept from furthering their learning (I will note that today, often Indian families I even have known in America push their daughters to be educated) if you check out history women were often seen because the weaker sex and ‘not clever enough to learn’.

It’s hard to imagine it had been ‘shocking’ when a lady wanted to further her education in comparison today’s standards. Then again, maybe not. Women still have trails to blaze… I could feel the hearth during this novel, the hearth for more.


Virmati’s mother’s life is confining to her, a life where the aim is to please one’s spouse and family. Her mother knew that within the end, it had been only necessary to marry and forget one’s own desires.

Virmati wanted escape and freedom and in fact , her own daughter Ida doesn’t wish to be like her mother either. Her mother who fell prey to a person who was a special kind of trap. Three generations of girls trying to flee the destiny of every other. I enjoyed this novel, it was thought provoking and full of suffering. I think it will be something book clubs can really bite into. 

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