‘A Stench of Kerosene’ written by Amrita Pritam, portrays the consequences of the strong influence of Indian culture in a village, which destroys a couple’s marriage. Manak and Guleri have been happily married for eight years.
The story opens to give the reader an insight into Guleri’s homesickness. “Whenever Guleri was home-sick she would take her husband, Manak and they would go up to the top of the hill. ‘She would see the homes of Chamba (her home village) twinkling in the sunlight and would come back, her heart glowing with pride’. This passage illustrates a happy couple in love, turning to each other for comfort.
However the reader is given an impression of Guleri’s imprisonment by her village customs and culture. Only ‘once every year, after the harvest had been gathered in, Guleri was allowed to spend a few days with her parents’
They would send a man to collect and bring her back to her own village. The story begins with Guleri recognising the neighing of the mare. She ran out of her in-law’s house and put her head against her neck as if it were a door to her father’s house! Doing this would relieve her from her homesickness. Pritam show sympathy for Guleri’s homesickness, as she is cut-off from her family and there’s no one apart from Manak to relieve her and comfort her.
Because of the village culture her freedom has been taken away from her. Due to her homesickness one would assume that she would be allowed to stay at her home a reasonable period of time, but this isn’t the case as she is only allowed to stay for a ‘few days’. To add further emphasis Guleri wasn’t allowed to go to her parent’s home by herself. Her family would ‘send a man to Lakarmandi to bring her back to Chamba’.
Guleri worked hard and ‘went about her daily chores; fed the cattle, cooked food for the parents-in-law and then sat back’. Once a year she would be allowed to attend with some girls who lived nearby her village harvest festival. ‘Once every year, there was a harvest festival when the girls would have new clothes made for the occasion. Their duppatas would have been dyed, starched and sprinkled with mica to make them glisten. They would buy glass bangles and silver ear-rings’. It was customary for the girls to prepare for such a valued event in their lives. This shows that the girl’s lives are normally bleak and dull. This festive event allows them to experience some of happiness. It was as if they are an untouchable excite of girls experiencing happiness, but only for a ‘few days’.
As Guleri had nothing else exciting to look forward to in her life she would ‘count the days to the harvest festival’. This was to motivate herself by giving her worth waking up for. Guleri and other woman like her would be expected to carryout their ‘daily chores for their mother-in-law as she would be the most dominant of the household’. It is customary in the Indian culture for the son, to live with his mother, even when he is married. In contrast, in the western world where woman are given equal rights compared to men, as they are educated, and have the ability to be independent by working for themselves. In the east, it is expected for the woam to take up a caring, nurturing, mothering role, performing all her household duties while the man is expected to go out and work. Especially in the Hindu culture a woman is regarded as a possession of her father if she isn’t married. Once married her ‘ownership’ is transferred to her husband and the big boss, her mother-in-law.
In the western society divorce is a very common practice amongst most couples, while arrange marriages are incredibly rare. In the eastern society many couples find true love through arrange marriage, divorce rates low this is due to the couples tolerance and understanding of one another and custom. ‘It was at this fair that Manak had first seen Guleri and they had bartered their hearts to each other. Later managing to meet alone, her remembered taking her hand and telling her your like an unripe corn full of milk’. Guleri and Manak would have been flabbergasted by each other’s presence and beauty, as they felt they were the perfect match for one another. Guleri tells Manak ‘If you want me go and ask my father for my hand’.
From this the reader is given an insight into how young couples that have fallen in love would prose to each other. It is customary for the man to ask permission from the father of the girl, as his decision has a big influence on the outcome of the marriage. ‘It was customary to settle the ‘bride price’ before the wedding. This Hindu culture has been largely influenced by Islam, whereby the groom must be able to provide something to his bride, may it be big o small however it doesn’t always have to be money. However many families have taken advantage, where they have requested the groom to pay large sums of money so they can profit from their daughters marriage. The author uses ‘bride price’ instead of ‘dowry’ to emphasise that Guleri is being sold. As Guleri’s father was ‘prosperous and had lived in cities, he would have sworn that he would not take money for his daughter but would give her to a worthy young man from a good family’. Guleri’s father was happy to marry his daughter to Manak a ‘worthy young man from a good family’.
Once happily married, Manak and Guleri ‘deep in memories’, Manak being roused by having ‘Guleri’s hand on his shoulder’. However Manak did not respond to the playful teasing of his wife. As ‘Guleri got up to leave’, she asked, ‘do you know the bluebell wood a couple of miles from here’? Pritam show Manak’s increasing distance of mind from Guleri, deeply ‘dreaming’, not paying attention to his wife, symbolises that there is something bothering him but the author leaves the reader in a bamboozled state of mind as she doesn’t explain what it is. Guleri then answer herself by saying, ‘it’s said that anyone who goes through it becomes deaf’. As illustrated, one of the village customs and traditions is superstition, which is embraced as a sign of hope, that the future will bring joy and prosperity.
She adds further emphasis to the new unknown lack of understanding between the married couple. Manak speaks and agrees with Guleri, ‘he can’t hear anything’ she is saying to him. Although they had been married for seven years, ‘neither understood the others thought’. Pritam leaves the reader startled by the couples uncharacteristic behaviour towards one another when, ‘Manak turned his face away’, and the ‘perplexed Guleri shrugged her shoulders and took to the road to Chamba.
When Manak returned home, he ‘slumped listlessly on the charpony’ the sound of his ‘voice was heavy’. His mother instantly replied ‘Why do you croak like a woman’? Manak was in a terrible state of mind, it seemed as if he had lost his manly hood, his mind in another world worried, upset and suffering from an unspecified reason it was clear that his guilty conscious way playing him up. ‘Manak wanted to retort’, “you’re a woman, why don’t you cry like one for a change”, but remained silent. Here the reader is given an insight into mind, which has been causing a sudden change into his character. It seems to suggest Manak is angry with his mother who has lost her femininity. However due to the strong influence of village culture, his string values and utmost respect for his parents and especially for the mother, holds him back, even though she had just insulted him.
‘Manak and Guleri had been married for seven years but had never borne a child and Manak’s mother had made a secret resolve that she would not let it go beyond the eighth year’. The author depicts a sad story of a happy couple in love seeing their marriage come to its destruction because of their custom. If a woman in India doesn’t bore a child, this leads to the family, mother-in-law’s status integrity being victimised by their culture. This year Manak’s mother ‘had paid him five hundred rupees to get him a second wife’ Manak’s mother was waiting ‘for Guleri to go to her parent’s house before she could bring in the new bride’. It’s customary for Manak ‘to be obedient to his mother and custom’. Manak married the new bride ‘however Manak’s responded to the new woman but his heart but his heart was dead within him’. Pritam illustrates the heartbreaking story of a couple happily in love and Manak’s love for Guleri was still deep within his heart, but due to the traditions of force marriage which still exist even to this day, have left many couples and loved one’s devastated especially when love is evident which was the sad case of Manak and Guleri.
One day ‘Manak was in the fields when he saw Bhavani’ his friend, he deliberately ‘ looked the other way’ because didn’t want to hear ‘anything about the fair’ that will remind him of his wife. The Manak heard the spine chilling words from Bhavani that ‘Guleri is dead’, ‘when he heard of your second marriage she soaked her clothes in kerosene, and set fire to them’. While hearing, ‘Bhavani’s words pierced through his heart like a needle’. ‘Manak mute with pain could only see his life burning out’ like a candle. Pritam utilises a clever technique by inoculating a less sympathetic feeling towards the mother in law and Manak’s second wife. She does this by giving them no names this allows her to alienate them from the reader, as their identity remains anomalous throughout the story. This is known as a distancing device therefore the reader feels less sympathy for them. However sympathy is felt to the couple that lost every thing especially for Guleri who not only lost her marriage but her life. Pritam graphically illustrates the tragic death of Guleri prompted by the cultural practice of ‘Sati’. ‘Sati’ is a practice by which the widow burns herself over the cremating body of their husband. However the traditional practice of ‘sati’ is outlawed in India, but it still exist in rural communities. Although Guleri wasn’t a widow, Pritam metaphorically describes Manak as a husband who was ‘dead’ to her.
The outlook to Guleri’s future was bleak; she had no job prospects, as she would’ve likely been illiterate. She was unable to produce an offspring, so the likely-hood of her being rejected and tormented again by her village customs, was highly likely. As a reject bride Guleri, Guleri would have had no status in the Hindu culture; her life would have been hollow and bleak.
After the tragic death of his wife, ‘Manak resumed his work in the fields’, trying to kill time so he could put the past behind him and forget his trauma. ‘He was like a dead man, his face blank, his eyes empty’. The author expresses a happy man’s life shattered and destroyed at the hands of his mother and his culture. He is sadly left alone to face the harsh reality and to pick up the pieces of broken heart.
Manak’s second wife didn’t receive the same love passion and devotion that he shared with Guleri. Pritam doesn’t mention any revealing signs of love or happiness between the new couple, ‘I’m not his wife, I’m just someone who he happened to marry’. This is because one may be able force one in to marrying someone but they can’t force someone’s heart to be devoted to another person.
Quite soon later, Manak’s wife was pregnant, ‘Manak’s mother was proud of her new daughter-in-law’. Manak’s mother advised him about his wife’s condition ‘but he looked as if he still didn’t understand and his eyes were still empty’. The reader and Manak’s wife are given some assurance from his mother about his deteriorating condition, that Manak’s ‘mood’ will change once the child is born and ‘placed in his father’s lap’. It was likely that her prediction will comes true seeing as she was able to manipulate her son and plan the destruction of his marriage and future. Manak accepted this due to the influence of his custom, of respect ones mother and doing what she says.
The baby boy was placed in ‘Manak’s lap, he stared’ at his son. ‘He stared a long time uncomprehending, his face expressionless. Then suddenly his blank eyes filled with horror, ‘take him away’ he shrieked hysterically, and ‘he stinks of kerosene’. The author depicts the dreadful story of Manak and Guleri who were both imprisoned by their village custom, which led to disbelief circumstances. The village customs back fired on Manak’s mother, having children is a gift but not necessarily the key to happiness when love and happiness is already evident.