The Rejection of Women in "In Custody," "The Remains of the Day," and "Once Were Warriors."

Phoebe Koch, English 27, Brown University, 1997

Deven's attempts at keeping himself aloof from the rest of the world are similar to those of Stevens in The Remains of the Day. In aspiring to be a butler of great dignity, Stevens feels that he "should never allow himself to be 'off duty' in the presence of others."(169) An overly polite and humble manner characterize Stevens' persona, as does a tendency to repress all emotion. After all, he reasons, "a butler of any quality must be seen to inhabit his role, utterly and fully; he cannot be seen casting it aside one moment simply to don it again the next as though it were a pantomime costume."(169) Stevens' unwillingness to remove his costume of propriety and abandon his constant reserve cost him dearly. He represses his emotions to such an extent that he is unable to recognize his tender feelings towards Miss Kenton. She in turn must finally abandon him. Thus Stevens' myopic view of the world leaves him isolated from others, and prevents him from forming close human bonds.

Jake "the Muss" Heke is similarly isolated from friends and family by qualities in which he takes great pride -- in this case his threatening nature and violent temper. Jake's wife and children tiptoe around him in the hopes of avoiding his wrath. It seems that Jake, like other male protagonists, derives strength from his feelings of superiority over an "other," weaker being. Women often assume this role in the mind of male protagonists. Because women and the feelings they evoke reveal the weakness of characters such as Deven and Stevens, they are shut out or dominated. In Once Were Warriors female sexuality also poses such a threat to Jake Heke:

Jake winking at her. Beth hoping it meant what she thought it did. Careful not to wink back because he didn't like the woman to be the instigator of that particular activity, nosiree he didn't. Sex was a man's choice first and foremost; in fact, a woman was careful she didn't show she enjoyed it too much or it made Jake wild, he'd start asking questions, or sulk, or not touch her for another month. (14)

Beth's sexuality threatens Jake's power over her. Harboring little command over the outside world, Jake feels the need to exercise his power over what he can control. His constant need to dominate the people around him, and his rejection of female sexuality (and affection between husband and wife) plays a large part in Jake's isolation.

The rejection of women and female sexuality also plays a major role in Desai's novel. Deven's greatest sin lies in his refusal to read the verses of Nur's wife, Imtiaz Begum, who sends him her poetry in the hopes that he will recognize her talent. She writes in her letter,

Let me see if you are strong enough to face [my poems] and admit to their merit. Or if they fill you with fear and insecurity because they threaten you with danger-- danger that your superiority to women may become questionable. When you rose to your feet and left the mehfil while I was singing my verse, was it not because you feared I might eclipse the verse of Nur Sahib and other male poets whom you revere? Was it not intolerable to you that a woman should match their gifts and even outstrip them? Are you not guilty of assuming that because you are a male you have a right to brains, talent, reputation and achievement, while I, because I was born female, am condemned to find what satisfaction I can in being maligned, mocked, ignored and neglected?(196)

Nur's wife provides Deven with the opportunity both he and Murad have been waiting for-- the chance to revive Urdu poetry. The arrival of Imtiaz' letter lifts the readers hopes; it seems as if Deven will finally be able to redeem himself through unveiling her poetry. For a moment the reader glimpses a ray of hope, as

The elegance and floridity of [Imtiaz Begum's] Urdu entered Deven's ears like a flourish of trumpets and beat at his temples while he read. The essential, unsuspected spirit of the woman appeared to step free of all its covering, all the tinsel and gauze and tawdriness, and reveal a face from which the paint and powder had been washed and which wore an expression that made Deven halt and stumble before he could read on. (195)

However, the reader's expectations are soon crushed. Deven not only refuses to read her poetry, he goes so far as to rip it into pieces and discard it. As Imtiaz had feared and predicted,

Deven did not have the courage. He did not have the time. He did not have the wherewithal to deal with this new presence, one he had been happy to ignore earlier and relegate to the grotesque world of hysterics, termagents, viragos, the demented and the outcast. It was not for the timid and circumspect to enter that world on a mission of mercy or rescue. If he were to venture into it, what he learnt would destroy him as a moment of lucidity can destroy the merciful delusions of a madman. He could not allow that. (197)

Thus Deven is among the "timid and circumspect," unable to take the step forward out of his safe and hopeless world and prove himself to be other than a worthless failure. Imtiaz Begum symbolizes all that Deven fears in the female sex. This is most clear when he becomes audience to her birthday performance. When he takes the time to listen to her sing, he thinks

Oh, it was all very beautiful, very feeling, very clever. Oh, she had learnt her tricks very well, the monkey. Did she not have the best teacher in the world to put these images, this language into her head? (82)

Clearly Nur's wife possesses talents, however Deven is too blinded by his own prejudices to realize them. Not only does her performance evoke feelings of disgust on his part, Deven seems to feel true rage towards the woman on stage and her appreciative audience. He charges her with stealing Nur's verse; belittling her talents by labeling the performance a well-rehearsed act. Harshly accusing her of belonging "to that familiar female mafia," Deven obviously feels threatened in the midst of the "conviviality of steamy femininity" (83) which surrounds him. One can imagine such an atmosphere to be the subject of Deven's nightmares-- the incarnation of his greatest fears. "Just as he does not want to disturb his depressing, yet comforting world of failure by striving, so, too, he does not wish to recognize any truths that might destabilize his world."

Overview In Custody Remains of the Day Once Were