Did you know that in certain communities in India a girl has to change her name after marriage? No, not her last name, her first name too. So if her name is Urmila she might have to change it to Savitri. Because her new name has to be lucky for her husband. I’m all for tradition but this is just depressing. Pervin Saket’s book, Urmila, is based on characters from one of these communities and explores what it is to be a wife in such a place. It is also based on the story of Urmila, Lakshman’s wife. (If you don’t know who Lakshmanan is, he is Ramar’s younger brother who willingly went into exile with him and his wife, Goddess Sita, leaving his wife Urmila behind to tend to his ageing parents.)
No book talks about Urmila, the same way no one talks about Karna’s wives. They are pushed to the side lines, like a long suffering background character in films that no one mention after the beginning. But these are the characters that allowed the story to be told, that allow the protagonists their chance at glory and in my opinion, are the hidden heroes of the story.
Urmila is a story about how blood is thicker than a Mangalsutra (as it is called in north India) and how devotion to one’s elder brother is more important that the vows to one’s wife. No, the author isn’t advocating the character’s behaviour. The author is just telling a story, and a very good story at that.
The story follows the character Urmila as she goes through her life. From the time she is a child wondering why her father and mother don’t ever love each other like they do in movies to when she’s a teenager and dreaming about how she and her husband will love each other to her actual realisation that movies aren’t real life. When she meets her future husband for the first time at the official meet, she is surprised to see that he is just about as interested in her as one would be in watching paint dry. And his devotion to his brother, which is stronger than his interest in a wife, becomes obvious with each meeting.
Ignoring the ill omens that precede her wedding day, she married him and realises that her life as a daughter in law is to be but as a wife, not so much. Circumstances force his brother to leave their home with his wife in tow and her husband follows suit. Not bothered about her, not bothered about his parents and certainly not bothered about his responsibilities. Feeling rejected by her husband she takes to her canvases to relieve herself of strong emotions that might otherwise destroy her. One of these paintings gets her into trouble. Which is where the story opens.
The portions where her painting process sis described is rather beautiful. The woman appearing on the canvas looking angry and empty, the very emptiness she didn’t mean o portray making her paintings a hit. A hit enough for her paintings to get noticed by the wrong people. And as we know Indians love to find something to be nosy and angry about and this is just what they do. Find something to get angry about and start a riot.
I really enjoyed this book, which should be obvious since I have it 4 stars. The writing was simple yet beautiful and very hard to put down. Family stories are one of my favourites and though this wasn’t a saga (spanning over generations) Urmila was a lovely read. The author has done a pretty excellent job at execution for the most part and you’re left feeling angry at the sister in law and the husband and even the kindly elder brother who didn’t actually mean any harm. I’d particularly like to mention how the author used proper spellings for the south Indian temples instead of north Indianising it. (Eg: Rameshwaram instead of Rameshwar etc)
I was worried it might turn into one of those Saas Bahu serial stories but Pervin Saket has done a great job writing this in a way that makes everyone look human and yet, wrong in their own way. My only gripe is that I wish the beginning had been spoken about again at the end. Maybe extended a bit, maybe something more written about what happens when her painting gets her into trouble. But the actual ending will leave you surprised. I did NOT see it coming at all. (I would like to tell you more, write paragraphs about the sister in law and their relationship but since it isn’t mentioned in the description on goodreads I won’t give you spoilers. You’ll know the moment you read the book anyway)
I strongly encourage you to pick up this book if you like the Anne Tyler or Chitra Divakaruni writing style. I’m definitely looking out for the author’s next book and am particularly interested in checking out her poetry collection, A Tinge Of Turmeric.
Inspired by the story of Lakshman’s wife from Ramayana, Urmila traces a tale of rejection and a woman’s passionate search for love, rekindling questions of devotion and desire.
The talented and passionate Urmila Karmarkar has recently married into a wealthy, politically connected family in suburban Mumbai. When Urmila’s brother-in-law is compelled to move to Dubai, her husband leaves her behind and chooses to follow him instead. Fuelled by this rejection, Urmila seeks solace in her art as she battles to keep her dreams of love and motherhood alive, waiting for her husband to return.
*I received a review copy from the publisher but these thoughts are my own.
Buy Urmila here.