The Lesson written by Sowmya Rajendran is a chilling depiction of the society that we live in. The society that we live in? Yes, you heard that right. All the symbolic characters and institutions in the book are not in some dystopian world; they exist very much as a part of our present society – they are a personification of some unwritten, but widely accepted, code of conduct or practice prevalent in society.
Important Characters / Institutions
- The Adjustment Bureau
- The Second Daughter (Protagonist)
- The Dentist (husband of the above)
- The Rapist
- The Moral Policeman
- The Dupatta Regulator
- The President
- Media Mogul
- The Priest
Plot / storyline
The Adjustment Bureau, that all powerful institution of society, aims at maintaining a flawless society with high moral standards. The Bureau, headed by a selfless and single-minded President, achieves its objective through its various functionaries, viz., the marriageable age notifier, the dupatta regulators, the moral police, the media mogul(s), the priest and finally the rapist. The adjustment bureau doesn’t take kindly to the various disruptors of its peace – it has a variety of institutions to keep the discordant people in check.
In this idyllic society, the second daughter demands a divorce from her husband, the dentist. The second daughter is unhappy in the marriage and wants a divorce. Of course one cannot be granted a divorce just by asking for it; you need to apply for it through the Adjustment Bureau, which is the conscience keeper of the society. The Adjustment Bureau, in keeping with its mandate, asks her to adjust. The Adjustment Bureau also gives her their standard treatment – the Prison of Illusions and the box – and asks her to reconsider her decision. The second daughter is adamant and still insists on the divorce. The President has no other option, but to resort to the help of the Rapist to teach her “a lesson”. In a brilliant idea, the president also uses this opportunity to use the lesson as a lesson for the public. To know how he plans to do that and what events lead up to the climax, you need to read The Lesson.
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- The Lesson comes across powerfully due to two primary reasons:
- Personification and objectification of the unwritten rules / mores of society. The society it depicts is populated by nameless, faceless characters each performing roles that the system has defined – eg. the moral policeman, the dupatta regulator, the rapist, the only son, the dentist, the priest and so on. On deeper introspection I found that each of us is playing those roles, albeit unconsciously, and that is a frightening thought.
- The narration – narrated from a 3rd person perspective in a direct, matter-of-fact manner is so powerful as to make it chilling. The tone is not angry, indignant and righteous. It is not passionate, earnest or pleading. It is dispassionate to the extent of being disinterested, objective and clinical – and that has been its strongest point. It induces anger, passion in the reader. It reminded me of the apparently dispassionate speech of Mark Antony at Ceasar’s funeral, as written by the Bard.
- The chapters were originally written as independent blog posts touching upon different aspects related to gender. They have been strung together as a coherent story, with a common thread running throughout. The “Dupatta Regulator’s nightmare” and the “visit to the zoo” have been blended into the narrative despite not being a part of the main story.
- Given the shortness of the book, it comments upon several aspects of patriarchy and gender and sensitizes the reader about the positions that we have been conditioned to take. It leaves the reader introspecting.
- With an elegant cover designed by Vidit Narang, the hardback book is a pleasure to carry and a good addition to a personal library.
. . .
- The climax wasn’t as dramatic as I expected it to be, but again I wouldn’t know how else to end the book. A woman’s perspective of the climax might be different.
- I did not get the function of “the box” – one of the repertory of devices in Bureau’s armory.
The lesson – everyone MUST learn.