The annual harvest festival, a local traditional event, is described by Amrita Pritam in such words that bring out the true colours of Indian festivity, ‘ their dupatas would be dyed, starched and sprinkled with mica to make them glisten. They would buy glass bangles and silver ear-rings.’ These descriptions to some western civilisations may seem extremely bizarre, but to these Indian people they are magical events that bring out the real spirit of their culture. The happiness Guleri feels in anticipation of the event is in marked contrast to her normal life and to the extreme sorrow she is about to suffer.
For most of the year life was not like this. When it came to the actual life of this typical rural sub-continent house wife it was dreary and tiresome, full of chores and hard work ‘ she went about her daily chores- fed the cattle, cooked food for her parents-in-law’. It is apparent from this that after a woman is married into a family she completes her destiny by slaving away for them, as if it were the norm. This is another aspect of Indian culture that lowers the prominence and rights of a woman far below what we would expect in the west and far below that of men. The way that Manak casts-off his wife and fails to answer her queries defines how even her husband has come to treat her. As the rest of the family idles all day, the wife is stuck in the house undertaking many tiresome tasks. Indian culture is particularly unreasonable in this aspect as it focuses on driving women so hard just to please her in-laws.
The mother is a respected figure all around the world, but in India this status is magnified greatly. The mother is in control of a wide range of things that can be seen from the different occurrences in this story :
‘ why do you croak like and old woman? Said his mother severely. Be a man.’ ‘ Manak wanted to retort ‘ you are a woman; why don’t you cry like one for a change! But he remained silent.’
This shows the extent of the supremacy of elders as even though Manak may have an extreme rush of emotions he still holds back when it comes to his mother. Love, the greatest emotion of all, itself did not stand a chance when it came to a mothers decision. The way that Manaks mother could not understand the relationship that Manak and Guleri had and how she destroyed not only love but also life in the pursuit of a grandchild gives you an idea about the single-mindedness of Indian people. The upbringing of Manaks mother in an Indian society led to her becoming what she is at present and that is one of the features that Amrita Pritam is trying to get across about Indian culture – The power of matriarchy within the home. This is further emphasized by the father only being referred to in the phrase ‘ parents-in-law’. Apart from that he remains a ghost; invisible in a household where the wife and mothers authority is supreme.
Another negative aspect displayed by the author to indicate the archaic nature of Indian culture is their belief in superstition.
‘ Do you know the Bluebell woods a couple of miles from here? She asked. It is said that anyone who goes through it goes deaf. You must have passed through those woods. You don’t seem to be hearing anything I say.’
Superstition is a major part of Indian life and its mention in this tale indicates the authors disgust of the hold it has over her fellow countrymen and women. Clearly Amrita Pritam believes that Hindu customs and culture are stuck in a barbaric past- especially with regard to women. One way she signals this is by not mentioning any reference to modern technology. Although written in the 1960s, there are no radios, telephones, jeeps and the like. With no suck reference points, ‘ A Stench of Kerosene’ could be set in the dark ages; which is exactly the writers critique of Hindu culture.
In the latter section of the story when Manak finds out about Guleri’s horrific death and is aware of the extent of what has happened due to some inhumane Indian tradition he is totally distraught, depressed and disheartened. Guleri’s immolation is symbolic of the Hindu ritual known as ‘suttee’. In this, the wife sets herself alight when her husband dies. Therefore when Guleri burnt herself it was as if her husband were dead to her. Also when Manak screams out when he holds his baby, ‘take him away! He stinks of kerosene’ he must be imagining the last agonising moments of first wife’s short and tragic life. His mother had her wish of a baby grandson, but at a terrible price.
Guleri may be symbolic of all women in India and her terrible treatment should not be viewed as an isolated case. We already know that other girls from her village lived in similar circumstances, as we are informed; ‘ they looked forward to their annual reunion’. She represents the oppression of all women in India that have been plagued by its culture. She cannot be free at any point of her life. She has to be picked up and dropped off from one destination to another by a male chaperone showing that Indian women are not allowed to travel on their own or look after themselves as if they cannot be trusted. This treatment is frowned upon in the modern world and is mentioned intelligently by Amrita Pritam to promote the movement of Indian right for women. The mere fact that the only purpose women have in an Indian marriage is to produce babies is enough to cause an uproar and is a sad indictment on Hindu culture and customs. The other fact of marriages in India is that women are bought from their parents which is a clear statement of them being a ‘ commodity’: ‘Manaks mother had paid 500 rupees to get him a second wife’. All these aspects bring out the most prominent point of this story: to expose the mistreatment of women in India.
‘A Stench of Kerosene’ contains multifarious techniques that allow the author to engage many different points of view and effects. She writes about her cultural heritage and its role in everyday life: the supremacy of elders over ruling everything else, the discrimination of women to such an extent that they are burnt alive, and superstition that is dominant over all forms of logic and thinking.
My personal belief is that even though these people have traditions that have been passed down from generation to generation, they are all outdated and in some instances barbaric. Indians have a very deep rooted history and therefore may find it hard to adapt to the modern world, but as Amrita Pritam quite clearly illustrates; it is time to proceed with life and forget the past, particularly with regard to the oppressive treatment towards women.