Girls by Mrinal Pande is narrated from the point of view of a little girl. It explores the issue of gender bias towards the girl-child. The young narrator is the second of the three daughters of her parents. The three daughters represent three different attitudes of victims of gender bias: The eldest daughter is quiet and submissive and plays the role that a girl in a male-dominated society is docilely expected to fulfil even though she is keenly conscious of the bias against her and her sisters. The second daughter (the narrator of the story) is rebellious. She raises her voice against unfair discrimination and constantly questions it and revolts against it even at such a young age. She represents awareness of one’s rights. The youngest girl is too young to understand what is going on and represents innocence and ignorance on the part of a victim of gender injustice.
The narrative begins with the narrator recounting the events of the day they were to leave for her grandmother’s house. The narrator’s mother is expecting her fourth child. She fervently hopes that this time she would give birth to a boy, otherwise, she would have to go through the whole process of another pregnancy and delivery. The mother is always stressed out and irritable, often giving vent to her irritability to her children, particularly, the little girl child. The narrator observes “To Ma, everything in life is a problem. As far as she is concerned, whether we are at home or at school, ill or just playing around, we are a problem.” The narrator next recounts her experience at the railway station which only highlights her naughtiness and her sensitiveness towards being treated as secondary and as a nuisance.
The mother goes to her parents’ house for her delivery, with her three children. The children’s Mama and Maami (that is maternal uncle and aunt) are there to receive them at the station. The mother is indifferent to the inner feelings of the children and accuses the middle daughter of being “the cause of all” her problems. The young girl is not excited about going into her grandmother’s house. The driver who comes to pick them up from the station is indulgent of the narrator and her younger sister and lifts them both out of the jeep when they reach Naani’s house. On entering the grandmother’s house, the narrator is asked to bend properly and touch her grandmother’s feet. She is told, “You are born a girl and you will have to bend for the rest of your life, so you might as well learn.” The mother is absorbed in the large sympathetic company of aunts, grandmother and maid-servants. The feelings and needs of the female children are often neglected by the elder women: if the children try to go near their mother they are warded off by the statement, “Let the poor thing have some rest at least while she is here.” The mother also gives vent to the woes of being a woman and behaves as if her three daughters always harass her at home. The mother once again reiterates her wish of bearing a male child this time so she could be rid of ‘the nuisance of going through another pregnancy.’ The narrator remembers her father and states how he never accompanied them to their grandmother’s house. Naani prays to the goddess to protect her honour and let Lali take back a male child with her this time.
The narrator overhears the conversation between her mother and the maidservant Tulsa Dai. Once again the pressure to bear a male child surfaces in their conversation. Seeing the Dhruv star in the sky the narrator recalls a fond conversation with her father who had told her that if she worked hard she could become whatever she wanted. However, when she pertinently asks whether she can become a boy, the father, like all adults, puts on a serious look and tells her not to argue with her elders.
At night, the women in Naani’s house gather together and voice their concerns and woes about the plight of women. The little girl overhears one of the aunt’s cryings softly and saying, “I don’t even get as much as respect as a dog does in that house”. She also overhears her mother’s response, “All of us suffer like that, one just has to endure it.” When the narrator refers indirectly to this incident in the morning, she is beaten up by her mother. The mother is perpetually angry with her. Troubled by the double standards of women towards young girls, often thwarted by elder women in her playful and inquisitive attitude to life, the little girl sits outside the house, and watches birds flying. She wishes she was born a bird, and woefully reflecting on her own status in the family, asks,“Do mother birds too think their girl birds are inferior?” The narrator’s elder sister warns her not to question grown-ups or else she will get beaten up badly. A little later she pesters Hari’s mother and refuses to let her carry her tray full of glasses of tea till she agrees and says that girls are nice.
The narrator wants to sleep with her Naani but is told that there is not enough space for three people in the bed. The grandmother shows a marked preference for her grandson when she tells the narrator that there was no room for her in her bed and sends her back to her own room. The elder sister’s suppressed anger shows that she is also keenly aware of how girls are constantly being discriminated against. On the festival of Ashtami, however, little girls are worshipped as “Devis”. Naani puts a crimson tikka on their foreheads and gives them halva puri and some money as well. When the narrator playfully runs around pretending to be an engine, her mother threatens to beat her. At this, the elderly neighbour intervenes and stops her saying that her daughter is a ‘kanyakumari’ and it would be a sin to beat her on the day of Ashtami.
While all the other little girls quietly participate in the celebrations, the narrator rebels sharply against it. Keenly perceiving the negative attitude towards girls in everyday life, the elements of violence and suppression meted out to female children, she refuses to be worshipped as a “Kanyakumari”. She breaks out in anguish, “When you people don’t love girls, why do you pretend to worship them?” Rejecting the ceremonial offerings, she screams, “I don’t want to be a goddess.”
The narrative is in the first person and we know that the events of the story will be narrated from the little girl’s point of view who is the second child in a family of three girls. The girl-child’s playful spontaneity is curbed, and she is treated as a lesser mortal in a male-dominated society. Though we can see that the story is narrated from the young girl’s point of view yet other perspectives too come into play. There is the mother’s perspective who is tired of repeated pregnancies in the hope of bearing a male child; there is the author’s perspective where MrinalPande points to the elder women’s plight and pressures of living in a society where men hold most of the power and importance.
The grandmother’s statement that if one is born a girl one has to bend for the rest of one’s life is significant because it depicts the conditioning of women and also the discriminatory attitude towards females in a male-dominated society. It is a direct reference to the subjugation of women in Indian households. The old lady from the neighbourhood as well as the grandmother wish and pray that a boy would be born to Lali (the children’s mother) this time. Clearly, there is no welcome for another girl child in such a set-up. It is not only men who discriminate against women, even women themselves frown upon girl-children and are indifferent to their tender feelings, the author suggests in this story. The children are ignored in a world of grown-ups, where women are engrossed in their own problems and preoccupations. The children are left to their own devices to comprehend the world of adults.
We are getting multiple perspectives on the situation here even though the story is still being told from the first-person narrator’s point of view. The eldest of the three daughters has found a way to survive in this biased world. She is aware of the discriminatory treatment but submits to the expectations of the elders regarding female children, as that seems to be the only way to peace. The younger girl is too young to decipher the power games of elder women and the marginalization of girls. It is the middle daughter of Lali that is the narrator, who raises gender-sensitive issues and questions. One of the important queries the narrator has is when she responds to her father’s (Baabu’s) remark that if she were to work hard she could become anything she wanted, “just as Dhruva became a star”. The little girl’s stubborn response is, “But I cannot become a boy, can I?”
It is interesting that the narrator shares a warm relationship with her father who unlike her mother is ready to listen to her and encourages her to become something in life. But he too gives tacit consent to the injustice against girl children when he curtly silences her and tells her not to ask too many questions when she wants to know whether she can become a boy.
The perspective of the elder women surfaces once again in the conversation they are having at night. The discrimination they face and the injustice they endure in the world dominated by men is evident in Choti Maasi’s complaint that her life is worse than a dog’s and Ma’s reply that they all suffer in a similar fashion and they just have to endure it. There is an element of suppressed violence in the story. The narrator is often threatened with a beating when she obstinately persists in asking her disturbing questions. The author is making it very clear here that though the elder women are sufferers of the injustice against women in society yet they are also the perpetrators of the discrimination being practised against girl children. Through the narrator, the author is voicing her own concerns regarding gender injustice and expects the reader to sit up, think and take a just stand.
The story reaches its climax here when things fall into perspective. All along in the story girls have been treated as secondary to boys. The three sisters are only a ‘nuisance’ and a ‘problem.’ The desire for a male child dominates all discussions of Lali’s pregnancy. Yet on the day of Ashtami they are suddenly seen as goddesses. The narrator is deeply hurt at the hypocrisy of it all. She rejects a part in the charade. A single day cannot undo years of injustice that girls like her face daily in their homes. Through the narrator, we are also getting the author’s perspective on the problem who has successfully exposed the duplicity in our society. The disturbing fact is that women themselves are shown to be responsible to quite an extent for the gender discrimination so deeply ingrained in our social framework.