Chitra Fernando's Three Women

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

Chitra Fernando's stories portray most sympathetically women who reject traditional family life. In contrast, the least sympathetic female characters, those who hurt the sympathetic characters, cover up their selfishness by acting out their traditional roles. The first story, for example, "Missilin," portrays a plain, loyal, hard-working servant-woman, Missilin, who feels quite content with her lot. Rather than bemoaning that she will probably never marry, "She didn't care a jot. She wanted nothing to do with men."["Missilin, Three Women (Colombo, Sri Lanka: Lake House Investments, 1983), 2.] In reaction to hearing that a man, Gomis, expressed interest in her, she says haughtily, "'Ask him to poke his face in the chilibags"[9]. She slowly warms to him expecially after he gives her some scented soap. But when Gomis finally marries another woman, rather than being devastated, she throws away his gift and pushes all thought of him from her mind.

Yet Missilin's fiery resentment against men for the wrongs they commit against women disappears in the face of other social injustices, like class difference, which she never notices. Missilin and the rest of the community agree in thinking her employer Mrs. Ranasingha a "pious woman." Fernando makes transparent Mrs. Ranasingha's hypocrisy, however. She takes advantage of Missilin's obedience, by, for example, not letting Missilin visit her family when promised. It never recurs to Missilin to resent her employer. Indeed, Mrs. Ranasingha constantly reminds Missilin how much gratitude she owes for her employment, just as she constantly reminds herself and others of her piety by completingvarious "meritorious deeds" like almsgiving. The irony in the story, contrasting who really has worth and whom society considers worthwhile, reaches its peak at the end, after Missilin dies of tuberculosis. In order to feel virtuous, Mrs. Ranasingha pays for an almsgiving in her memory.

The whole neighborhood commended heraction in the warmest terms. Mrs Ranasingha even felt mildly alarmed. . . . Of course, she wanted Nirvana. But she felt that to enjoy the worldly fruits of her meritorious deeds for her next two or three lives, at least, was only her due..... After briefly expressing the hope that Missilin would be born in better and better circumstances in this long cycle of births and deaths, he [the chief monk] passed on to the goodness of Mrs Ranasingha in having an almsgiving for a dead servant. And this, Mrs Ranasingha felt, was exactly how it should be. [15-16]

Fernando here pokes fun at the small-minded selfishness of traditional society's values, but she takes Missilin seriously, evoking sympathy for an honest, self-sufficient woman unaware of how her employers exploit her In her other two stories, "Action and Reaction" and "Of Bread and Power," Fernando presents women characters who are sympathetic because of their underdog status. In "Action and Reaction," Kusuma, brought to the narrator's aunt's house as a servant, grows from a pathetic child to a beautiful young woman. Her employer, Loku Naenda, whose personality echoes that of Mrs. Ranasingha in "Missilin," refuses to let her marry the man she loves, and society supports her in this decision. In this story, however, the exploited turns into the exploiter, because as she ages Kusuma takes over Loku Naenda's household, draining her of her money in order to pay for expensive meritorious deeds. As Kusuma turns into a replica of her employer, she becomes an equally unsympathetic character.

In "Of Bread and Power," the heroine Seela finally escapes the exploitation of her parents by remaining celibate, supporting herself financially, and living with her brother and another young man. She is the only female figure who breaks through tradition to build a happy life forherself. She seems a noble character when she asserts her worth and dreams against the wishes of her family. Interestingly, Fernando does not base this positive image completely on a breaking of tradition, because Seela only gains the confidence and money to leave her family from her grandmother. At the end of thestory, she argues with her brother's friend Somie, who wants to build society "based on justice, freedom and friendship." Seela responds: "'No . . . I - I want to be like my grandmother. She had no illusions. I want to be a good designer and understand myself and other people" [54-55]. Fernando in this story both shows a woman who breaks through tradition and suffering, but with the aid of her grandmother. Fernando does not reject the values of traditional society, but rather the greed and abuse they hide.

[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]