Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Pet Peeve Reconsidered: Falguni Kothari's IT'S YOUR MOVE, WORDFREAK!

Women, Aryan reflected philosophically, were from Venus. a man wasn't meant to understand them.

My father got everything, including us, two children who needed their mother and who my father could not possibly care for because that's not what fathers do. It's not their job.

The rest of their dinner passed in quick-witted banter and some suggestive talk—mostly on his part. Boys will be boys, after all.

In one of the earliest posts I wrote for RNFF, I ranted about the prevalence of "It's a guy thing" and other gender-universalizing statements in romance novels. I labeled that post with the title "Pet Peeve," indicating my frustration with the limitations of such gendered ways of labeling thoughts, feelings, and behavior in the romance genre.

I went back and re-read the post today, trying to make sense of my reactions to a novel I read this week, one in which many such gender-normative statements are both thought and uttered by the romance's protagonists, especially by its heroine. But despite these annoyingly gendered universalizing statements, I found myself liking this book, even charmed by it at times. Was I just allowing the pleasures of the book to blind me to the sexism it contained? Or was something else going on here beyond attempts to police gender?

The question becomes even more fraught when I consider that the book—Falguni Kothari's It's Your Move, Wordfreak!—is set largely in a country (India) far different from my own, and written by an author who was born and raised in that country (though she now lives in the United States). And it was published by a company in India, suggesting that Indian, rather than American, readers are its primary intended audience. How do my own cultural assumptions about what constitutes feminism play into my reading of this book? How do they differ from those held by women in/from India? I don't have any definitive answers to such questions, only an awareness that they exist, and might influence (for good and for bad) the analysis that follows.

Alisha Menon has been playing online Scrabble for months under the moniker "Worddiva." Her fiercest competitor is a man who calls himself "Wordfreak"; their epic battles have gradually segued into online chatting, until, at novel's start, they are just on the verge of meeting face to face for the first time at a restaurant in their home city of Mumbai. The three quotes serving as epigraphs for this post all come from that initial meeting, quotes that demonstrate how both Alisha and Aryan (aka Wordfreak) hold fairly stereotypical (at least by the American norms with which I am most familiar) views about gender roles, especially the roles of men, at novel's start. Yet Alisha is a successful divorce lawyer, not a stay-at-home mother or a woman ready to drop her career at the first sign of a potential mate. And for his part, Aryan doesn't seem to care much for patriarchal gender norms, himself; not dismayed by losing more often than winning to Worddiva in their Scrabble matches; "exhilarated" by the challenge of their matches; "enchanted" by their online chats, including moments when Worddiva had "called him a fool so many times that he had lost count," Aryan has been captivated by Alisha's outspoken, determined personality long before the actual sight of her "knocked him flat out (Loc 121). His commitment to environmentally-conscious practices in his job (as an architect and civil engineer) suggest his progressivism in other areas as well.

Alisha's feminism is both very much on display (her outspokenness, her commitment to her job, her standing up to jerky men who are angry at her role in ending their marriages), yet also often serves as grounds for conveying the story's humor. For example, when, early in their relationship "Aryan stiffened slightly and signalled her in a come-hither motion," Alisha wants to "instantly obey his command.... How had one long, blunt finger unhinged her feminist pride so easily?" We laugh, though, when Aryan's gesture turns out not to be a move of seduction, but one intended for secrecy, so he can secretly ask Alisha why Vallima, a member of her house staff, is staring at him. Aryan's acceptance of Alisha's way of being, as well as of feminism in general, is also littered throughout the novel. For example, when Aryan suggests that her food be reheated because it got cold while she had to take a call from work, and she tells him, "You're very easygoing.... It's just that most men or the men I've come across are not so accommodating," Aryan just shrugs, "understanding perfectly what she was getting at. 'The world is changing,'" he tells her, then goes into a paragraph-long thought digression on said changes:

The boundaries between the sexes were fading. There was nothing like women's work or a man's job anymore. If one thought himself—or herself—capable of doing something, one went out and did it. With varying degrees of success perhaps, but people were stepping out of their gender slots. Even in India. (Loc 716)

Why, then, do such gender-based statements as the ones above keep popping up throughout the novel? Particularly those related to men? Alisha doesn't seem to take pleasure in feeling superior to poor inferior male Aryan; nor does she seem to relish difference, or take comfort from it to account for relationship problems, all theories I put forth in my earlier post as possible reasons for the presence of gender-universalizing statements in romance novels. Instead, I wonder if, in this novel at least, such statements might be a sign of both recognition of and frustration at the persistence of "gender slots" in Alisha and Aryan's culture, even in the midst of a time of great social change. The boundaries are "fading," Aryan admits, but he doesn't claim they are entirely gone, a situation the novel's mixed gender messages clearly convey.

We see signs of the mixed messages of gender in a scene mid-novel in which Aryan and some neighboring boys are building a treehouse. When Aryan invites Alisha to come up, one of the boys replies, "How can she climb up? She's a girl." Alisha thinks "He was tiny, barely coming up to her hip, a male chauvinist in the making," and quickly responds to reject his sexism: "Girls can do everything that a boy can. More in fact." "Teach them young and maybe the world would be a better place," Alisha thinks to herself.

But it turns out that when he's with the boys, Aryan isn't quite as feminist-friendly as he is with Alisha: "That's not what AB [i.e., Aryan] told us," the boy tells her. "He told us that boys were stronger, smarter and more talented." Aryan's response is meant to be humorous—"Aryan winced and shook his head at the boy. 'I should have also taught you that some things were meant to be kept secret from girls'"—but it's also telling. Aryan feels the need to code switch, to endorse traditional gender norms when he's with a group of boys, even while recognizing how his society is changing around him. Even while taking falling in love with a woman who has been in large part shaped by those very changes.

Alisha's initial response to Aryan's code switching is to fall back into her own gender-normed beliefs: "Alisha sneered. Boys would be boys" (Loc 1742). Then, she tries to joke her point across: "No wonder God has to repeatedly send down messiahs and avatars to save the world. Even She knows you men botch things up spectacularly" (Loc 1742). The boys, unfortunately, don't get the joke, "too young to understand the finer points of feminism" (Loc 1749). Finally, she tries demonstrating in their own terms, rather than explaining in hers: "How dare they think her a scaredy cat even if she was one? She could do this, she would show then. For all women all over the world, she squared her shoulders and grabbed the rope. 'Ready,' she squeaked" (Loc 1764).

Earlier, at a party, Alisha muses, "In her experience, most people projected different personas under different circumstances. Maybe not different personas so much as different traits in their personalities dominated in different surroundings" (Loc 1392). Should sexism be thought of in this way, too? As a personality trait one can emphasize or de-emphasize, depending on the circumstances in which one finds oneself?

I thought this might be the novel's intended message, until I reached its final scenes. The story's emotional arc is not about teaching Alisha not to be so strong, to accept that love means subsuming oneself to another (i.e., a man), as I had worried it might be. Alisha does learn the necessity of compromising, but it is Aryan, not Alisha, who undergoes the biggest character growth, having to come to terms with his feelings about the death of his mother when he was a teen. As Alisha upbraids him, "You're a hypocrite, you know that? What did you tell me that day? That I have boundaries and I had set limits on our relationship, that I don't let people in? What about you?" (Loc 3181). Aryan may be a man, and he may be acting foolishly, but that does not mean that Alisha should attribute his behavior to his gender, she finally realizes: "Then she sprinted after the foolish man. Men were so silly. No, that wasn't true. Why charge the entire gender with the crime. This man was so silly" (Loc 3041).

New insights co-exist with old assumptions, though; later, when Alisha asks Aryan why he doesn't ask his father about his mother's death, and he says "I just don't want to, that's all," "she looked at him incredulously. Men were so foolish. It was becoming her mantra" (3196). And during their big reconciliation scene, when Aryan admits that he was wrong about a lot of things regarding his parents, Alisha tells him, "Men are so foolish" (Loc 3614). But the declaration is accompanied by the thought, "She wasn't one to 'there, there' someone and nor was she the type to spout nonsense such as 'life is nothing but a learning curve' even if it was" (Loc 3614). Her response isn't an explanation, but a chiding, a way to keep Aryan from taking her too much for granted. And when Alisha's friend Diya tries to use the same excuse—"You do know that you're expecting all that from a man?.... They're not exactly equipped to deal with life's vicissitudes" (Loc 3313), Alisha rejects her reasoning: "What rubbish! I've said my piece. Now it's up to him." (Loc 3313).

Gender universalizing? Or gender equity and equality? Or a messy mixture of both? The mixed messages continue throughout the novel, even through the book's final scene, a disagreement between Aryan and Alisha over whether they should sign a pre-nuptial agreement. Will Aryan use the disagreement to teach Alisha that "She's not always going to get her way," as he defensively tells his future brother-in-law on the eve of his wedding? Or will he follow Alisha's lead and compromise? The novel leaves the question tantalizingly open, the ball in Aryan's, and, perhaps the reader's, court.

Photo credits:
Scrabble feminism: Feminspire
Treehouse: Asia Travel
Woman holding "Equal?" sign: Asia Development Dialogue

Falguni Kothari,
It's Your Move, Wordfreak!
Rupa Publications, 2012


  1. I think how palatable such gendered comments are have to do with whether they're constructs the characters are aware of and struggling with or something the narrative endorses. Whether something is the latter is often hard to determine and somewhat inherently subjective, but I don't have an inherent objection to the former. In fact, if it didn't exist in a romance set in the real world (as opposed to sci fi and fantasy), I'd wonder how realistic it was. Those books that question gendered norms need to mention them.

    Also, I'll have to look around for that book. It sounds vaguely familiar; did Dear Author review it when it came out?

    1. Thanks, lawless, for getting to the heart of the matter--the difference between whether the narrative endorses the comments vs. the characters struggling with them. I think this is just what is going on in Kothari's book.

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