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ISSN: 0974-892X


January, 2022



Does ‘She’ have a Choice? A study of R.K. Narayan’s The Dark Room

Dr. Rachel Irdaya Raj, Asst. Prof – English, Dept of Humanities & Sciences, VNR Vignana Jyothi Institute of Engineering and Technology, Hyderabad, Telangana


Feminism means equal political, economic and social rights, and equal opportunities for women. In India, the term as such was not used until the twentieth century. Yet we find the initial stages of feminism advocated by Raja Ram Mohan Roy and his likes who fought to eradicate Sati and child marriages. Women empowerment is an off shoot of feminism that aims at providing opportunities on par with their male counterparts. Given the patriarchal structure of the Indian society, and the cultural constraints that we live in, it is difficult to propagate and practice women empowerment. Literature is a powerful medium to convey things and as one of the pioneers of Indian writing in English, R.K. Narayan embarked on this journey of placing India on the global map. His novel The Dark Room is a simple story of a middle-class housewife. But as you read through the novel you begin to realize that all is not well in paradise. The novel highlights the stark realities of how rules are different for men and women in our society. It mirrors the present environment where most of the women are still bound by these constraints. The protagonist Savitri, in the novel tries to voice out against these prescribed norms and to have her own identity. This paper attempts to study if the Indian women are really empowered? Are they at liberty to make choices?

Keywords: feminism, women empowerment, cultural constraints, choice


The twentieth century witnessed powerful reactions and responses to the concerns of gender. Gender is primarily the biological difference in human species and was thus labeled as masculine and feminine. The roles designed for man and woman stem from this basic difference. Over the centuries we find that society has been structured in a way that gender-differentiation is considered as one of the parameters to frame rules, to design roles and to demarcate the spheres separately for men and women. “Gender refers to the roles and responsibilities of women and men that are created in our families, our societies and our cultures” (Mathu, 2008, p. 14). Butler (2006) observes that “gender is culturally constructed” (p. 9). Thus, we find that the concept of gender has become an integral part of the society and it percolates into every sphere of life–social, economic, political and cultural. The different roles chalked out for both the genders do not spell equality. The roles were designed in a way that man always had an upper hand, a larger share of privileges and thus proclaimed power and dominion over the opposite sex. Kasturi (1995) has done an in-depth analysis of patriarchy and the role of women within this setup. According to her, “patriarchy as an ideology is deeply embedded in several societies, cultures, and institutions as well as in the minds of men and women” (p. 5). Khurana (2018) echoes that “patriarchy is a system promoting and nourishing the core value of control and domination in almost every human area of existence” (p. 116). Thus, we find society being cast into the patriarchal mold. Let us look at the structure of the family, the basic and fundamental unit of society. Discussing about this, sociologist Patel (2005) views that “the family is a unique institution in that it is at one and the same time both a private and a visibly public institution...Also, the family as an institution is near universal” (p. 19). Another sociologist Risman (1998) says that “the family is the one institution in which we are all produced and in which many of us display – day by day – our gender” (p. 4). Herein we find that gender stratification is clearly visible with the husband being the head of the household and the wife essaying the role of a homemaker. In families where the woman is working, she is expected to balance both her work and the home front without any support from her husband. This is because domestic labour has been defined as a function to be performed only by the woman.

The rise of feminism and the women’s movement has gradually brought about changes in the structure of gender. Feminism means equal economic, political and social rights and equal opportunities for women. “As a social movement, feminism largely focuses on limiting or eradicating gender inequality and changes in the social position and representation of  women” ( Paul, 2006, p. 1). When the concept of feminism was taking the West by storm, India was engaged in its national struggle for freedom. As early as in the 19th century the social reforms movement led by the likes of Raja Ram Mohan Roy can be considered as the onset of feminism in India. But it did not bring about a drastic transformation. Sociologist Pande (2018) traces the origins of feminism in India and how it was discriminated based on gender. She observes that,

The social reform movement did not radically challenge the existing patriarchal structure of society or question gender relation. They picked up for reform only those issues which the Britishers were pointing out as evidence of degeneration in the Indian society. Even the women’s institutions and organizations that sprang up during this period did not have an independent ideology but only took off from what the men were stating. (First Phase section, para. 4) 

Thus, Sati and child marriage were abolished; widow remarriage was encouraged. But the Widow Remarriage Act clears states that only the upper caste widows could remarry. There was no uniformity in the laws of reformation. Chaudhuri (2019) states that “gender practices in India were intimately tied to caste, community and region” (p. 26). Majority of the reformers belonged to the upper class and most of them were male. The reformation laws were favourable only to them. Thus, women could have an education only to be better housewives and not with the idea of breaking the gender barrier. Kumar (2002) states that “the social reform movement can be characterized as playing an important part in the formation of a new set of patriarchal gender-based relations” (The Nineteenth Century section, para. 2). In the twentieth century, women began to play varied roles in the economic and political spheres, and they have been accommodated and accepted by their male counter parts. They no longer needed to define themselves in terms of their domestic responsibilities. Men also began taking on the responsibility of sharing the household work and involving themselves in the upbringing of their children.  But that did not really take away the woman’s primary responsibility at the domestic front. According to Risman (1998) “even when women spend as many hours in the paid force as their husbands do, they retain primary responsibility for homemaking and child rearing” (p. 93).  From being a housewife to a working professional, balancing the home front as well as the office space, being a loving wife as well as a caring mother and above all having an individual identity – the woman has embarked on the beginning of a new journey, but she has a long way to go.

Literature is a powerful medium to convey things and as one of the pioneers of Indian writing in English, R.K. Narayan embarked on this journey of placing India on the global map. His novel The Dark Room first published in the year 1938is a simple story of a middleclass housewife. The concept of gender dichotomy runs throughout the novel. So is the protagonist’s urge to break this stereotype. “Savitri in The Dark Room actually represents a class found in profusion in the Indian middle class homes that can neither comply with nor revolt openly, but silently bear the brunt of patriarchal bashings” (Putatunda, 2012, p. 9). As the novel opens, we see Savitri fussing over her son as he is unwell and does not want to go to school. Her husband Ramani calls out to her and gets impatient when she does not respond. When Savitri decides that their son will not go to school that day, her husband intervenes and asks his son to get ready for school. He also tells his wife, “go and do any work in the kitchen, but leave the training of a grown-up boy to me. It is none of a woman’s business” (Narayan, 2017, p. 1).  This dialogue by Ramani establishes his character as a chauvinist. Sociologist Kapadia (1959) analyses the family as an institution and states that the women in the family “were imbued with the ideal of pativratya. Their life was devoted ideologically to the service of their husbands in particular and of their families in general” (p. 73). At the dining table, Ramani does not like the food that is served and comments that Savitri should learn to cook a decent meal. He expects her to offer an explanation and when she does, he exclaims, “shut up. Words won’t mend a piece of foul cooking” (Narayan, 2017, p. 3). Kapadia (1959) views that the women “were always considered inferior to the males and did not face the male kin in the family, much less talked with them” (p. 73). “Husbands tend to exercise control over their wives by clearly indicating how they should behave” (Chowdhury & Patnaik, 2010, p. 462). By the time he gets ready and leaves for office, it is as though the entire house has been through a hurricane. The maid, the servant, the cook, and his wife are supposed to be at his beck and call. Ramani either has an opinion or has a complaint about everything. It is only after he leaves that the house falls silent. Now Savitri gets down to her routine. After finishing her puja, she sits down to have her meal. Her thoughts now return to her son Babu and feels sorry that she could not keep her son at home. She thinks to herself, “how impotent she was, … she had not the slightest power to do anything at home, and that after fifteen years of married life” (Narayan, 2017, p. 5). This opening scene is a common sight in most of the Indian households with a slight variation in terms of how the man reacts in a particular situation. As rightly observed by Kasturi (1995) that, “women over whom such power and authority is exercised are socialised suitably to fit in” (p. 5).

After her meal, Savitri goes to lie down on her favourite bench in the hall. Browsing through a Tamil magazine, she dozes off till it is time for her daughters – Sumati and Kamala to come home for lunch. After they finish their lunch and go back to school, she gets ready to visit her friends. By 8.30 pm Savitri’s ears are alert to pick up the sound of her husband’s car’s horn. The servant Ranga’s instructions are to keep the garage door open. Savitri has learnt to interpret the car horn and decide on her husband’s temperament that day. If the horn was blaring, it meant Ramani was in a bad mood. If the horn was mild, it meant he was either bringing home a guest or he had won a game of cards at the club. When he was in a jovial mood, Savitri could relax. She could also take liberty in talking to him as she wished. Even the children were at ease and could hover around the dining table to talk to their father. Sometimes he also discussed his office affairs with his wife. Ramani worked as the secretary at the Engladia Insurance Company, and he brought in business worth ten lakh rupees. He took pride in the fact that he was an indispensable part of the company. One evening, when Savitri was at her friend’s place, her daughter comes to tell her that Ramani was waiting for her at home. Savitri hurries back to see that her husband has changed his clothes and was getting impatient. The moment he sees Savitri he asks her to get ready as he was taking her out to watch a movie. Ramani liked to be seen in public with his wife. When he observed that others were looking at his wife, it only increased his satisfaction. Seated beside her in the cinema hall, “he surveyed her slyly, with a sense of satisfaction at possessing her” (Narayan, 2017, p. 22). This clearly shows how men viewed women as an object to be owned and to be displayed. Figes (1986) states that, “man’s vision of woman is … what he wishes her to be … and it is to this mirror image that woman has had to comply” (p. 17).

The first instance where Savitri tries to assert herself is seen during the Navaratri festival. The children were excited to bring out all the dolls and toys to be arranged for the festival. Babu strictly warned the girls that only he would set up the platform for the dolls to be arranged and will also decorate the whole area with lights. This whole ordeal took up almost an entire day. Babu brought his friend to get the lights fixed. When they tried to switch on the lights, they did not function and added to that the entire house suffered from a power failure. Babu along with Ranga went to the electricity office to raise a complaint. By the time Ramani returned home, the house was pitch dark. He was already upset that Ranga did not open the garage door. Added to that, Kamala told her father that Babu and his friend had meddled with the switch, and it resulted in the power failure. As soon as Babu came back, Ramani shouted at him and slapped him. Savitri came to defend her son, but she could do nothing more than shed tears. She went into “the dark room next to the store, and threw herself on the floor” (Narayan, 2017, p. 39).  The children tried their best to bring her out of the room, but she was adamant. The next day she is still in the dark room sulking. She does not give instructions to the cook about meal preparations as well. In the backyard Ranga and the cook discuss the situation at hand and Ranga views that, “it is no business of a wife’s to butt in when the father is dealing with his son. It is a bad habit” (Narayan, 2017, p. 40). The cook also says, “women must be taught their place” (Narayan, 2017, p. 41). This statement by Ranga and the cook clearly shows the chauvinist nature of men irrespective of their economic status. Across all classes in the society men have similar views on how women ought to be treated. Unfortunately, Savitri’s sulking in the dark room did not affect her husband Ramani. He went about his work as usual. It is the children who missed their mother and made several attempts to bring her out of the room. In her desperation, Sumati went and asked Savitri’s friend Janamma for help. Janamma came and admonished Savitri for over an hour and justified that it is alright for men to behave rude at times. According to her, “men have to bear many worries and burdens, and you must overlook it if they are sometimes unreasonable” (Narayan, 2017, p. 46). Thus, Savitri is convinced to come out of the dark room. The dark room represents the anguish, the frustration and the helplessness of the protagonist. This is commonplace in the Indian society where we see women resorting to their own dark rooms unable to escape their marital realities.

After some time, a new problem threatens to ruin Savitri’s marital life without her knowledge. It all started when Ramani’s company wanted to hire a few women employees on probationary basis. Ramani was given charge of interviewing and selecting the candidate for his branch. After much scrutiny, Ramani selects Mrs. Shanta Bai, a woman estranged from her husband. He not only recruits her but gives her a room within the office premises. He also borrows his wife’s favourite bench and has it set up in Shanta Bai’s room. One evening he goes on a casual visit to enquire if Shanta Bai is comfortably placed. Thus begins his extra marital affair to the point that Ramani sometimes never went home. Savitri had a tough time making up stories to the children about their father’s absence. She also hears rumours from the others about her husband’s affair. Finally, her friend Gangu tells her that she saw her husband in the cinema hall along with the other woman. Savitri is heartbroken and looks at herself in the mirror. She does not like what she sees and reasons out that it not her husband’s fault that he does not like her. That evening she takes great care and gets ready for her husband. But Ramani does not come home that night.  The next night she confronts her husband and tells him that he must stop his affair. Ramani shouts at her to stop talking and go to sleep. When Savitri does not stop he realizes that she is hysterical and tries to calm her down. Savitri exclaims, “I’m a human being. For you we are playthings when you feel like hugging, and slaves at other times. Don’t think you can fondle us when you like and kick us when you choose” (Narayan, 2017, p. 85). She threatens to leave the house if he does not end the affair. Ramani is adamant that he shall not allow his wife to dictate terms to him. Figes (1986) observes that, “since the standard of womanhood is set by men … and not by women, no relaxation of standards is allowable” (p. 17). According to Chatterjee (1989) “though her husband be devoid of all good qualities, yet, such is the estimate they form of her moral discrimination and sensibilities, that they bind the wife to revere him as a god” (p. 622). He asks her to take her things and get out of the house. At that moment Savitri realizes that she owns nothing in this world except her body. She walks out of the house in the middle of the night.

Savitri walks all the way to the end of the town and reaches the river. Her mind is crowded with several thoughts. She is reminded of her siblings and her parents. She wishes she could have completed her graduation so that she could earn her living. She feels so helpless that she always depended on her father and later her husband for her survival. She reasons out that her daughters should complete their education “and not depend for their salvation on marriage” (Narayan, 2017, p. 93). She decides that “no one who couldn’t live by herself had a right to exist” (Narayan, 2017, p. 94). The Report of the Sub-Committee on 'Woman's Role in Planned Economy' (1947) clears states that “woman cannot be free until the means and training for economic liberty have been assured to her” (p. 30). The situation of the protagonist is rightly captured in this report. Driven by her hapless state, Savitri jumps into the river to commit suicide. A small-time robber named Mari sees Savitri jump into the river and saves her life. He brings her to his home where his wife Ponni fusses over her. The next morning Ramani wakes up and recollects the events of last night. He is shocked that his docile wife could turn so violent and walk out of the house. Still his ego does not allow him to accept his mistake. He decides that life can go on without his wife and that she is not indispensable. Ramani did believe in the women’s movement, was ok with the women getting educated and having the liberty to do as they please occasionally. But they must not forget their primary responsibilities – that of being a wife and a mother. He considered this as a divine privilege bestowed on women. According to him, “what woman retained the right of being called a wife who disobeyed her husband? (Narayan, 2017, p. 109). He feels that his wife has treated him disgracefully after all that he has done for her. As Dutt (2018) has noted that “under a patriarchal order, gender-power relations have a direct impact on women’s subordinate role in the society. Socially determined norms allow men to invoke female control, command and respect by using brute force” (pp. 213-214).

Meanwhile Savitri is adamant that she will not set foot into Ponni’s hut or have anything to eat unless she earns it. Unlike Savitri, Ponni is a vibrant woman who speaks her mind even with her husband. In sharp contrast, Ponni is the one in charge of her house and not her husband. In fact, she threatens her husband to find some job for Savitri or he’ll face her wrath. With great difficulty Mari finds her a job of taking care of a temple. Savitri is excited about the job and does her work diligently on the first day. That night when the temple is closed for the devotees, the priest tells her that she can take shelter in his house. Savitri refuses and asserts that there is nothing to be afraid of. But as the darkness closes in, her fears return to haunt her. She compares herself to a bamboo pole which cannot stand without the support of the wall. Her thoughts return to the comforts of her home, her children, and her weakness in being so helpless. She cries and tell herself, “this is defeat. I am no good for this fight. I am a bamboo pole” (Narayan, 2017, p. 146). The next morning, she returns home. “She returns not because submission is her being but because it is a lesser evil of the possible options” (Mujumdar, 2006, p. 95). The children are glad to have her back. As for her husband – he behaves as if everything is normal. Given the patriarchal structure of the Indian society, and the cultural constraints that we live in, it is difficult to propagate and practice women empowerment. Kasturi (1995) observes that, “the absence of social, cultural and economic homogeneity makes it difficult to generalize about Indian women in the crucible of change,… for instance a subordinate status can coexist with advanced education. In another, a free status coexists with illiteracy and low caste.” (p. 2)

As seen in the novel, a brahmin woman like Savitri is oppressed whereas the lower caste woman Ponni is free spirited and in control of her life. The Dark Room highlights these stark realities of how rules are different for men and women in our society. Chakravarti (2019) observes that “while the subordination of women is a visible feature... the extent and form of that subordination has been conditioned by the social, economic and cultural environment in which women have been placed” (p. 24). It mirrors the present environment where most of the women are still bound by these constraints. Kholi (2017) asserts that,

The system of patriarchy finds its validity and sanction in our religious beliefs, whether it is Hindu, Muslim or any other religion. For instance, as per ancient Hindu law giver Manu: ‘Women are supposed to be in the custody of their father when they are children, they must be under the custody of their husband when married and under the custody of her son in old age or as widows. In no circumstances she should be allowed to assert herself independently’ (p. 181)

The protagonist Savitri, in the novel tries to voice out against these prescribed norms but is restricted due to these constraints. The character has the self-realization that she needs to have her own identity but fails at achieving this goal. Like the protagonist in the novel, we see several women in the present, faced with the same turmoil. While in the twenty first century we do see women evolve and carve an identity for themselves beyond marriage, there continues to be a prejudice against the choices they make. Be it unmarried women, working mothers or single mothers – society is constantly apprehensive of their lifestyle and rarely supportive of their choices. Comparatively, men continue to retain the liberty to make choices and live life on their own terms.  So, the concern is not about whether or not women have a choice, rather, it should be-why are there consequences to their choices. Regardless of their socio-economic status, true feminism can only be achieved when women can be supported despite the choices they make. To conclude then as Kasturi (1995) aptly says "The question therefore seems to be not whether women should be integrated into development and existing structures but whether structures and strategies should be changed in order to benefit women” (p. 31).




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