Gabacho on the Run with Ru Freeman’s A Disobedient Girl

After I uploaded the Chris Owens post, I high-tailed it out of the country as fast as I could. I wasn’t waiting around for any midnight knock at the door. I packed the usual: shorts, t-shirts, sandals, and plenty to read. It never seems to fail: I’ll be reading a book every night for a week and right before I travel I will be close to the end, but not close enough to finish. So, invariably I end up finishing the book on plane and having to lug the book around with me for the duration of my trip. This time it happened with Ru Freeman’s novel, entitled, A Disobedient Girl, which by the way is a great read. The story takes place in Sri Lanka and revolves around the lives and loves of Latha, a strikingly beautiful servant girl, and Thara, the pampered daughter of the upper-class/caste family. Because the two girls are so close in age, at times their relationship becomes one of sisters, confidants, and dangerous liaisons, but when boys (and later men) appear on the scene, they become competition for each other. Despite their close relationship, the class/caste difference is forever an impassable obstacle.

Latha is an orphan girl with few memories of her own family, and lives in the storage rooms of the family she works for in the city of Columbo. She is able to attend school and is clearly more intelligent that Thara. Nonetheless, she is constantly reminded that she is a servant girl who must conform to her preordained role in society, sacrificing her own desires and showing her eternal gratitude to the family that has given her a roof over her head, even though they refuse to pay her. The assumption is that with her life in a “decent” home working for a “decent” family she would be little more than a street urchin or prostitute. And, for this gift, she is to be eternally grateful to the tyrannical, domineering, and elitist mistress of the house. Clearly the evil step-mother in this Cinderella story, but there is no prince charming, no glass slipper and no fairy god-mother.

Unless they have lived abroad for an extended period, I suspect that few American readers will have first hand experiences living in an atmosphere with live-in servants, women who give up their own lives and dedicate themselves to taking care of a family that is not their own. These are expected to be humble, subservient and invisible as they raise children that are not their own. Some of the so-called masters may not even know how to boil water for their own tea, let alone cook and clean, without the help from their servants. These master-servant relationships may also reify the distorted and self-important picture that elites hold of themselves throughout the world. Instead of realizing that they have servants because of economic inequities in the society, they somehow feel that money isn’t the issue: class status, morality, tradition and propriety are the key features of their self perception. This upper-class sees itself as superior, as a cut above the rest, morally, socially, and spiritually. The base of their self-image is the bedrock of tradition, which they obsessively impose and maintain. This is precisely the space that Freeman portrays in her novel.

There is a telling scene in the early chapters in which Latha informs her mistress that there is a new flake detergent for washing clothes on the market, which is of course more logical. The mistress of the house, however, informs her that “we” are traditional in this house and “we” will continue to use “detergent bars.” The word “we” however is ironic because the mistress would never stoop so low as to wash her own clothes.

The book is about a girl’s initiation into womanhood: school, studies, puberty, brassieres, and boys. These young men are invariably judged by their family names or by the neighborhoods where they live. Only those who must come from only the “best” families (read: traditional upper-class are admissible as possible suitors). The tacky and uncouth parvenus or nouveau rich are forever excluded, because the appearance of social status must be maintained at all costs, even when the costs are love, marriage and happiness. It should be noted that the glue that holds this social atmosphere together is deception, lies, and hypocrisy. Hence, the title’s reference to disobedience refers to a woman who tries to be true to her own desire in a world in which propriety means living by rules established by and for men, rules that are also enforced by domineering upper-class women. This all makes for great drama.

Latha is not the only one who attempts to eke out a place of her own. Thara’s relationships are fraught with identity conflict as she marries a man from a lower caste. While the words “forced marriage” doesn’t appear in the novel, the families are able to decide who married who. Family and class pressure make the decisions. As a result, below the surface, men and women carry on illicit affairs. The effect is even more deleterious for individuals because hypocrisy becomes the norm. Over time, their cross-class marriage presents a struggle over which models to follow and the simple issue of where and from whom food is purchased can be the subject of heated debate. The dining room and dinner table, in place of being a place where families come together, are spaces of confrontation where the characters reaffirm their self-important categories of identity based on their own traditions.

Latha, despite her social position, aspires to be in control of her own life and enjoy the pleasures that are forbidden to her status. In this regard, she becomes a master picaroon, using deception and misdirection to carve out a small space for her own hopes and desires in the narrow spaces she lives. She maintains this fantasy by stealing a bar of fragrant soap, a pair of elegant sandals and covering her room with photographs of Lady Diana to form the background of a liberating fantasy. This is not to say that she doesn’t act on these fantasies; she does. The consequences, however, are often dire.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the novel is how Freeman intertwines two different narratives. The chapters alternate between Latha and Biso, two women who have met misfortune with immeasurable dignity. The second tale is that of Biso, a mother of three who is leaving her abusive husband and traveling to her aunt’s village in the mountains. The two narratives provide ample opportunities for what the Greeks referred to as anagnorisis, a moment when characters make discoveries or a point in which paths cross.  In these two narratives, pleasure, love and compassion bring down the pretentious social order of one household in one spectacular meltdown as Freeman brings all the disperse threads of the narrative together.

The language in Freeman’s novel, while quite different, is reminiscent of Christina Garcia’s The Agüero Sisters, a novel written by a Cuban American writer. Maybe this is because the novel speaks of another space, one that American or British English cannot evoke. As a result, the author pushes English (or should it be written in lowercase as “english”?) to its limits, making it expand, and then shows its deficiencies by spicing the novel with words and phrases in Sinhala. Although there is no need for a glossary or translation, I am still looking for the translations of words like “para balla” and “baba.” This linguistic curry also gives rise to new metaphors. For example, the children who were clinging to Latha in the aftermath of a traumatic incident were described as “refusing to be ripened fruit.”

Who knows what kinds of tales Ru will have for us in her next book? Two thumbs up for this one: it’s a great read.

Gabacho– according to the Dictionary of the Spanish Royal Academy– is derived from an old Provençal word “gavach,” meaning a person from the foothills of the Pyrenees who spoke incorrectly. These days, it means “outsider,” somebody who just doesn’t fit in.

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