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This paper examines Chitra Banerjee’s short fiction “The Bats” in terms of narrative techniques, conventional and contemporary, with special reference to Gerard Genette’s six parameters apart from others. It probes the issue of domestic violence between spouses in a middle-class Indian household and evaluates the narrative art of “The Bats.” The research being primary in nature confines its references largely to this shorter fiction. “The Bats” conforms to Gerard Genette’s six parameters of narrative technique within limitation of shorter fiction. The issue of domestic violence, required to be treated exclusively, is one of the research outcomes of this paper. Secondly, if short fictions are examined only thematically, much of the artistic endeavor of the author and the opportunities of artistic fulfilment of the readers are overlooked. In a globalizing world where time for everything is short, the lovers of literature find shorter fictions as their mainstay of aesthetic fulfilment.
Keywords:Narrative Technique, Artistic Endeavour, Aesthetic Fulfilment, Shorter Fiction, Domestic Violence
Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, a noted Indo-American fiction writer and poet, has also carved her niche as a writer of shorter fictions. She has written two anthologies of shorter fictions, Arranged Marriage (1996) and The Unknown Errors of Our Lives (2001). Arranged Marriage is her first anthology of remarkable eleven shorter fictions. The opening fiction of this collection, “The Bats” set in hot Calcutta dark deals with strained marital relationship of a couple. It shows how in an arranged marriage circumstances a middle-class married woman becomes a victim of domestic violence and in vain tries hard to find an escape. The woman along with her eleven-year-old daughter runs away from her husband’s house for a sojourn in an old man’s house, her distant relative who lived all alone. Soon she writes a letter to her husband to allow her back home. Explaining the reasons of her return the woman says, “I could not stand it, the stares and whispers of the women, down in the marketplace. The loneliness without him” (Divakaruni 12). So finally, she gives in. Several times she leaves the house and rejoins again. This problem relates to many middle classes married women in Indian households. The question is left open before readers to ponder over? Sensitising the readers to this issue is in itself a job the author may have in the back of her mind. But its implication goes much deeper.
Now the question is what is the theme of the story? The fiction gives us only the idea of a woman being beaten by her husband. ‘What for’ is not brought to question. This was perhaps because that might have digressed the fiction to several other related issues. Therefore, she focuses on domestic violence between spouse specifically. After dealing with this issue in the fiction, Divakaruni, through symbols of bats, hints at a solution but the cost is big. The loss of hard-earned silver ring from the fish symbolises loss of the bond of love and charm that makes house a home.
In this paper the narrative techniques of the story are being examined with special reference to six parameters set by Gerard Genette, one of the most prominent narratologists since Roland Barthes (Beginning Theory 231). The parameters are, basic narration mode, the focalisation, the narrator, handing of the time in the story, how the story is packed and the way speech and thoughts are represented besides many others. But, before engaging in discussion, a brief literary contribution of the author would be appropriate here.
Chitra Banerjee is a noted South Asian American fiction writer who having graduated from the University of Calcutta moved to the University of California, Berkeley in the USA to have her M.A. and Doctorate. She has been known for her fiction writings such as The Mistress of Spices (1997), Sister of My Heart (1999), The Palace of Illusions: A Novel (2008), and poetry collection Black Candle (1991) and Leaving Yuba City (1997).
According to Genette, there are two basic modes of narrative—mimetic and diegetic. Mimesis means showing and dramatizing while diegesis means telling or relating. Writers may choose one or the other or even a mix of the two as per their need and choice. “The Bats” being a single effect story uses diegesis mode of narration because it suits the story that necessarily has to be short. So, the story is presented in a rapid and summarizing way to give the readers the essential and linking information. The narrator, the eleven-year-old daughter of the woman narrates what she observes. The opening lines and paragraphs of the fiction make the readers clear that the story moves in a diegetic mode: “THAT YEAR MOTHER CRIED A LOT, NIGHTS. or maybe she had always cried, and that was the first year I was old enough to notice. I would wake up in hot Calcutta dark and the sound of her weeping would be all around me, pressing in, wave upon wave, until I could no longer tell where it was coming from” (Divakaruni 1). In the next para, she writes: “One morning she was getting me ready for school…I noticed…high up on her cheek, a yellow blotch with its edges turning purple…“what is that ma? It’s nothing” …“Hurry up or you’ll miss the bus… And don’t make so much noise, or you will wake your father.” Then, in next paragraph, she says: “father always slept late in the mornings…” (Divakaruni 2). Thus, we see that in second page itself within first five paragraphs only, the entire story is foregrounded.
If the story is examined in terms of focalization or ‘viewpoint’, it is noticed that it is told from the point of view of external focalization. The narrator is an outside observer who puts forth her own observation of the happening. Narration is given in the first person. The fact that she is minor gives story a credulity. Had the story been told from internal focalisation, it may have added complexity also because characters in the story are in conflict with each other. Hence reliable narration would have been difficult. Here minor narrator may be charged for giving only a limited view of the happening. But it privileges the readers to have their own interpretations. The first-person narration assumes further credulity because the narrator has an advantage of being a participant too. Such a narrator is called homodiegetic narrator. The neutrality of her observation is reflected through her innocent reporting of her father stating clearly that her information has come through her mother.
Back-take and fore-take called “analepsis” and “prolepsis” respectively are two usual modes of narration. These are usual techniques to relate an event of the past and refer to or anticipate an event which happens later. Examined from this angel, “The Bats” is handled through proleptic mode except in one place where the narrator first describes about her father. Just a reference to her father by the woman provides the narrator an opportunity to explain as to who and what her father was. Here the story moves in analeptic mode or flashback: “Father always slept late in the mornings. Because he worked so hard at the Rashbihari press where he was a foreman, earning food and rent money for us, mother had explained” (Divakaruni 2).
The packaging of the story in “The Bats” is straight forward. The story begins in the middle wherein the narrator reports the routine cry of the mother round the year. With this author very successfully brings about the conflicts of the fiction to the fore: “THAT YEAR MOTHER CRIED A LOT, NIGHTS.” The opening line is deliberately made in capital letters to highlight the issue. ‘Nights’ after a comma substitutes the first line and indicates problems having no solution. Then the father’s tiring and exhausting working condition is hinted as one of the probable reasons of the crisis.
The silent escape from the house of the mother builds up the climax in the story. Because thereafter running away and returning back home became her habitual practice. Writing of a request letter to her husband, though under social pressure, shows her helplessness. This seems to move the fiction towards resolution of the crisis. Back home following the assurance of the man, she quits the house again which means that the problem perpetuates. The woman’s returning home again indicates compulsion under which she has to give in. The author through this fiction highlights the issue of domestic violence of married women in patriarchal Indian society.
Since the fiction is one of single effects, the packaging of the story is straightforward except that it opens in the middle and at one place makes use of flashback. In the fiction two elements of plot, exposition and the inciting incident have been combined. The very first line of the fiction serves both the purposes. Similarly, the rising and the climax too have been combined to suite the purpose of the shorter fiction. With narrator’s little description of the father’s unhealthy and tiring working condition, her noticing of cut mark on mother’s face and mother’s secret plan to run away from the house immediately takes the readers to the climax of the story. The mother’s returning back to the house shows the falling action but her breaking away again in midnight shows there is no resolution of the problem. Through the symbols of bats, the denouement of the story is reached. The bats habitually come to eat mangoes. In the beginning they ignored pesticides sprinkled over the mangoes, ate them and died. Lastly, they stopped coming and thus were saved.
The speech in “The Bats” is direct and tagged. For example, it becomes clear from the conversation of the woman and her daughter, “Will you miss your father?” There was a strange look in her eyes. “No,” I said in a definite tone” (Divakaruni 5). Here actual words spoken are given in inverted comma and the tagging is the name for the attached phrases as to who the speaker is. The language used in this story is simple, that of day-to-day conversation. Sentences and paragraphs are short, simple and clear.
Style reflects the author’s personality, life and thoughts. That is why it is said that the style is the man. Devakaruni uses very simple yet poetic style in her writing. In this short fiction the author uses rich native Indian vocabulary such as girggits, zamindar, kul, chapatis, Sandesh, alu, bindi etc. to create Indian air and ethos. In the latter part of the fiction, symbol of bats has been used to develop the concept of the theme. The ‘silver ring’ from the fish the girl had found along with grandpa is the dearest thing for her which she kept slipping from place to place. Coming back to her house she notices: “when we came back a few weeks later I looked for the ring everywhere. But it was gone” (Divakaruni 16). Here ‘silver ring’ symbolises bond of love and trust that builds house a home. Once a woman falls from the grace of marital home, the house for her is never the same.
The very first line “that year mother cried a lot” foreshadows the somber tone of the story. This makes readers engaged in speculating as to the reason of the cry. Furthermore, it naturally creates tension in the minds of the readers which serves the purpose of the author who wants them to associate with negative feelings. Regarding setting it also has to be noted that the dark summer night of Calcutta, where fiction is set, provides apt locale while the tiring working condition in hot summer suggests as the cause of the man’s sad mood and his rough behavior. This also reflects of the coming the conflict in the fiction. Through this the author creates the verisimilitude to the fiction.
Title of the story “The Bats” is symbolic in meaning. When the grandpa uncle uses pesticide to safeguard the mango from the bats, they eat it being unmindful of the danger and die. In the guise of bats, the author very wisely pushes an answer to the issue raised in this fiction. The bats represent the middle-class Indian women who suffer from domestic violence and yet they repeatedly become its victim. Grandpa Uncle observes: “I guess they just don’t realize what is happening. They don’t realize that by flying somewhere else they’ll be safe. Or maybe they do, but there is something that keeps pulling them back here” (Divakaruni 8).
“what is that something” in relation to the women which “keeps pulling them back here” is the social make up of society which treats a run-away woman with social stigma and doesn’t spare even children. A married woman having children, be it divorcee or a run-away, will find it hard to get remarried. Besides, it is general perception of the people that the hangover of the first marriage sticks to the last; they believe, marriage in India is much more than a social contract. It assumes psychological dimension. Grandpa Uncle observes later, “May be the bats did catch on, because a few days later we found only ten bodies, and only three the next day” (Divakaruni 8). This hints at the acceptance of the new and consequent lessening of the violence on this account.
As in a typical shorter fiction, characters in “The Bats” are not sketched with physical details. Readers know them through their words and actions. In this story the father is made real through the reporting of his daughter. Characters are stuck in a deadlock situation, in vain try hard but remain static. The woman protagonist introduced as a ‘the mother’ is cast in the mires of the patriarchal system which allows her no escape. She is a subdued character; even in a situation of turmoil. Her voice is hardly heard. These characteristics hint that the author has chosen her to be submissive, feminine, compelled woman as well as mother in an Indian society to relate the problem to the reality.
Father character is underplayed. He appears to work in a harsh working condition which is also reflected through his rough behavior. He is not given name which makes the character as any father under his circumstances. Hectic schedule in printing press and coming late in the nights explain one of the reasons of his frustration. With the scanty descriptions of his work the writer has introduced him as a minor character cum antagonist in the story. The grandpa uncle’s character becomes vivid when his words and activities are heard and observed. When he hears first of the mother’s decision to return back, he feels disappointed for himself quite naturally as he lived all alone. But, the moment he learns the decision was her’s own, he reconciles. He suggests the girl instead: “I must not talk to Mother that way, that she had many troubles and that I must be especially good daughter to her and help take care of her” (Divakaruni 12). These words bring true character of a typical Indian grandpa uncle. The girl’s character has also been sketched realistically. Her reactions, observations, and obstinacy at times are natural of a girl of her age. Because she is made to shoulder the responsibility of a narrator, the author is careful that her observation remains neutral.
Thus, evaluated from the angels of narrative structure, Divakaruni’s short fiction “The Bats” is cogent and lucid while interwoven thematic is provocative. This short fiction has made apt use of point of view and external focalization. While the use of child narrator creates credulity, native vocabulary raises Indian ethos and use of symbols of the bats and silver rings deepens its thematic concern. Told in simple yet poetic language, “The Bats” is packaged well. With few words and actions, characters become live and memorable.
Divakaruni, Chitra Banerjee. “The Bats.” Arranged Marriage. New York: Anchor Books, 1996: 1-16
Barry, Peter. Beginning Theory. New Delhi: Viva Books Pvt. Ltd (Rpt.), 2008.
About the Author:
Priya Kumari, NET in English, is a research scholar in Nava Nalanda Mahavihar, Nalanda, Bihar. She is doing research on “The Changing Dynamics of Human Relationship in The Shorter Fictions of Jhumpa Lahari and Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni: A Comparative Study.” She lives in S.K. Puri, behind Nalanda Guest House, Nalanda, Pin code: 803111. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org/ email@example.com.