A Novel of Indian Jewish Life: Meera Mehadevan's Shulamith

Shoshana M. Landow '91 (Anthropology 302, Princeton University, 1989)

Meera Mehadevan's Shulamith (copyright 1975) exemplifies a recent novel in the sakti tradition that has the effect of showing the effect of the dominant Hundu culture upon the Jewish women of India. The novel's main character, Shulamith, experiences a "sense of dual fidelity" between her devotion to her husband and to her way of life. She chooses her way of life and remains in India when her husband leaves for Israel, but she withers away because she missies him and eventually dies as he returns. Second, Shulamith's initially ebullient sister-in-law, Mezuzah, allowed to date and remain single, soon suffers the consequences of violating traditional Indian-Jewish mores. Influenced by Western values of romance and freedom, the young woman falls in love with a non-Jewish youth and becomes pregnant. She then experiences shame, an agonizing abortion, and a horrible marriage because her mother will not let her either marry a non-Jewish man or bring shame on the family by having a child out of wedlock. Shirwadkar explains the process that forces the Westernized young women to embrace family and tradition: "The ideas, tastes, manners adopted from the West appear to these girls attractive till some crisis or experience in their lives holds them back to the inherent culture" [Meena Shirdwadkar, Image of Woman in the Indo-Anglian Novel (New Delhi: Sterling, 1979), 49]. Mezuzah, or Maizie as she is called by most, becomes an image of the suffering woman: her values and personality change as she transforms first into a subdued, abused, barren wife living in poverty then into a hard-working, self-sacrificing nurse.

Shulamith appears particularly ambivalent because although Mahadevan portrays the young women Maizie and Naomi as victims of a patriarchal tradition, she makes Shulamith, who enforces social traditionalism and religious orthodoxy, a character to be highly respected. Mahadevan seems to sympathize with both sides of the conflict, but the positive image of the suffering woman remains constant. Mahadevan essentially has admiration for strong women who suffer and for younger women who learn to endure. In not being able to resolve the conflict she portrays, she returns to the traditional Sita-Savitri image.

[This contribution derives from work written for Professor Ranjini Obeysekere's Anthropology 302, South Asian Women Writers: Another Approach to Feminism, Princeton University, 1989/]

[Postcolonial] India OV [Gender OV]