Chocolate by Manju Kapur is a short story which centres around certain events in the marital life of Tara. The narrative style of this story is humorous but the subject matter of the story is anything but that. The story raises some very serious issues concerning marriage and individual self-respect.
Tara is sent to an all-girls convent school until she attains the age of 17 years, where the emphasis, as in most schools is entirely on academic work. The free time that is available, Tara utilises it by attending dance and music classes. After schooling she is sent to an all-girls college for three years. Here she decides to pursue the Honours Course in English, and this decision is taken by her for all the wrong reasons. She doesn’t exactly know what to do with her life and so she opts for English, which at that point seemed a “good no-purpose subject”. She realizes very soon that English (Hons) is not just about reading stories, but also requires a far greater involvement of grey cells, what with its emphasis on ideas, history and various kinds of interpretations, sometimes extremely obscure. So Tara spends her time bunking classes to watch films with her friends. All the time she complains about the strenuousness of the course and is duly consoled by her mother. Meanwhile Tara’s wedding is fixed and the wedding preparations coincide with the preparatory leave before the exams. Tara makes a feeble protest, and given her lack of aptitude for studies, one can only guess how ill-prepared Tara is for her exams. When the results are declared Tara is surprised that she has passed with a third division. Needless to say, by this time, she is back from her honeymoon.
In the Indian social set up, birth of a child, preferably a male child is seen as a natural by- product of marriage and that too within the prescribed time limit of a year or at most two from the time of marriage. Tara’s case is no different. When it becomes increasingly clear that Tara is unable to bear a child in the normal course of time Tara goes in for a series of remedies, both rational and irrational. The narrator describes the various remedies undertaken in a humorous fashion. Tara suggests to her husband Abhay, that they should visit a doctor. Abhay refuses to see a doctor with the assertion that there is nothing wrong with him. The doctor after examining Tara declares that there is nothing wrong with her and suggests that the problem could be with Abhay. Abhay after a heated discussion agrees to see a doctor but on condition that he would do it alone. Tara never comes to know what transpired between the doctor and Abhay or what verdict was given by the doctor. We can however assume that the report is not positive as Abhay is “tight lipped and cross”. He moreover calls the doctor a fool and prohibits Tara from visiting the doctor. With this rational option closed, Tara we are told explores the divine front. She crawls on her hands and knees upto Vaishno Devi and repeats it at various others shrines. When this exercise does not pay dividends she takes to wearing stones (rashi-stones perhaps). Her mother-in- law shows her appreciation but none-the-less would on the sly comment “she is unhealthy from inside”.
It is around this time that Abhay starts feeding Tara Chocolates and thus begins Tara’s tryst with Chocolates. It is the casualness with which Abhay seemed to bring her Chocolates that alerts Tara to something else. Abhay keeps getting an excess of peppermints and despite requests for more variety, persisted in bringing the same peppermints. His excuse is that he is very busy and airports stock only peppermints, which Tara knew was a lie. It dawns on Tara that Abhay picked these mints with a total indifference to her taste. It also dawns on her that he is most of the time not at home, and on occasions when he is at home he is greatly preoccupied. Tara’s obsession with Chocolates leads to obesity. Abhay makes fun of her and makes it quite clear that her rolls of fat did not do his image much good. He nonetheless continued to supply her with Chocolates, not one, not two, but all twenty at a time. He never takes Tara on any of his frequent trips. The physical intimacy of their relationship is restricted to an occasional rub around her fat belly. Given these circumstances, Tara puts two and two together, does some spying and discovers what is obvious to everyone else, that Abhay is having an affair.
On discovering Abhay’s infidelity, Tara experiences all the emotions normal to a person in her situation. The immediate fall out of this emotional trauma for Tara is her total distaste for Chocolates. Chocolates now begin to symbolize Abhay’s betrayal and her earlier obsession now turns to nausea. And so she begins to lose weight steadily until she is thinner than ever before.
Tara decides to discard sarees for salwarkameez and begins to look young and beautiful Tara decides to win over her husband and so adopts the age old adage that the path to a man’s heart is through his stomach. She joins a cookery class and starts dishing out delicious, mouth- watering food from her kitchen. Abhay succumbs to this offering from Tara and slowly gets addicted to all the delicacies. It seems as if he cannot get enough. His demand for good dishes keeps growing and Tara is more than willing to appease her husband. There is now a reversal of roles. Where earlier it was Tara who was obese, it is Abhay now who suffers this fate.
As expected Abhay’s growing girth leads to the break-up of his affair. So far so good. Tara has won her husband over from the other woman. But the story does not end here. It takes a very interesting turn. What had started as an innocent attempt by Tara to win back her husband, at some point of time becomes a plan for revenge. She begins to find Abhay ugly, what with all his layers of fat, and complexion turned unhealthy due to his excessive consumption of alcohol. Tara to give her revenge a grand finale chooses to have an affair with Abhay’s best friend and very cleverly puts an end to the affair, the moment she discovers that she has conceived a child. She announces the news to her husband and attributes it to his improved good health. Abhay is puzzled over this new development and is suspicious about the child’s paternity. Tara, however, had been so careful and circumspect in her affair with Abhay’s friend, that Abhay finds no grounds for his suspicion. Abhay of course is not a fool. He tamely accepts the child, although he is not totally convinced that he is the father. You will of course, at this point recall his meeting with the doctor and his reluctance to talk about it. Tara now has what she wants, a child and a girl child at that. But Tara is now a more mature person and as a mother is determined not to make the same mistake as her own mother. She is determined to give her daughter a good education—an education that would culminate in a career, making her daughter independent and self-sufficient. Even the lullabies she sings are of brave women warriors and not of tame submissive women.
Although Tara is made to go through school and college, it is very clear that her education is not oriented towards any career goal. Education in her case is considered mostly as an ornament that would brighten her chances of getting a good husband. Her growing dis-affection for the course she is pursuing, does not alarm her parents. Clearly they do not expect her to take up a career. Tara, at this stage, still warm from the embraces of her husband does not have the foresight to figure out the importance of economic independence which a career would give her. It is only much later that she realizes the importance of education, but by then it is too late.
Abhay’s attitude in this sequence of events, seems extremely unreasonable. Abhay seems to believe that the inadequacy rests, solely with the woman. He is stubborn in his belief that the problem does not lie with him. This reflects a certain mind-set, a mind-set which is shared by the society at large, that the cause of infertility is always the female and not the male. Tara is unable to challenge Abhay on this issue, as her position in the house is that of a dependent. She has to quietly submit to her husband’s stubbornness. It is also quite possible that men in general do not wish to acknowledge their infertility in the mistaken belief that their manhood and virility may be questioned.It is interesting to note that Abhay’s mother too seems to be on her son’s side. Instead of rationalizing the problem and constructively counselling the son, she chooses to lay the blame on Tara’s “unhealthy inside.”
Abhay’s offering of Chocolates could mean three things. Firstly it would avert any suspicion in Tara’s mind, as the Chocolates which he so diligently brings for her are meant to be a token of his love. Secondly Chocolates probably assuaged his own guilt over his extra-marital affair. Finally Chocolates make Tara so ungainly and ugly that Abhay probably finds justification in this, for his own attraction towards the other woman. It is more difficult to understand Tara’s obsession with Chocolates. She shows no moderation in her consumption of Chocolates, despite her growing obesity and her husband’s taunts. Is Tara’s weakness for Chocolates merely gastronomical or is it her way of overcoming the unhappy state of her marriage? It is very clear that Tara’s and Abhay’s marriage is on the rocks. The following points are a clear indication of this. (1) Abhay stays away from home most of the time. (2) He is constantly making fun of Tara’s rolls of fat. (3) On the physical front their relationship is non-existent. Although Tara is surprised when she learns of another woman in Abhay’s life, the reader is hardly surprised as all indications clearly point to this conclusion.
Tara adopts Abhay’s strategy to work out her elaborate revenge plan. Where Abhay picked Chocolates off airport shelves, Tara laboured in the kitchen to feed him. She makes him fat and obese, like he had once made her. Like him, she also has an affair and that too with his best friend. Unlike Abhay, Tara earns for herself a wonderful gift for all her pains. The gift for her perfect revenge plan is a baby girl and her own baby girl at that! Tara’s attitude towards the baby girl also evidences her maturity and growth as an individual. We might agree with the author that Abhay justly deserves what he gets and feel happy for Tara, but the story and its ending none-the- less raise some very pertinent questions regarding the institution of marriage. One cannot but feel sorry for both Tara and Abhay. It is very evident that there is no love, respect or even affection between Tara and Abhay, yet they both choose to remain trapped in their loveless marriage. The marriage is indeed a farce for both. For Tara it is so because she no longer loves her husband because of his infidelity. Moreover towards the end of the story she finds him positively repulsive. For Abhay because he probably knows that the child is not his, yet is forced to acknowledge the child, lest he become a laughing stock in the society. Is marriage then merely a social institution which has to be preserved at all costs? Or should marriage be a coming together of two people based on love, trust and mutual respect. In a scenario where a woman is economically dependent, does she have the option of walking out of a marriage which cannot physically and emotionally sustain her? Even where the woman is economically independent is it very easy to end a marriage, especially when a single divorced woman does not have much social acceptability and sanction? These are some of the questions the short story raises, to which we must turn your thoughts.