4. Searching for and (Re)creating the Self:A Study of Anita Nair’s Lessons in Forgetting -J.Sathiyalakshmi





The self is the distinct trait of an individual. It is a self-organizing, interactive system of thoughts, feelings and aspirations which exemplifies the uniqueness of an individual.  As all the human activities are centered on these endeavors in pursuit of the self, the quest and recreation of the self becomes the predominant concern of authors of all genres. In Anita Nair’s fictions, her characters have come out of their struggles in their quest for self identity. Her novels explore the freedom of the woman to fulfill herself basically as a human being. The present article intends to explore the searching for the self and recreation of it, to redefine the role and the quest of women to move on in life in Anita Nair’s Lessons in Forgetting (2010).


The earlier Indian women novelists have portrayed woman as silent sufferers, the upholder of traditional values and ethics, the strict observer of social taboos, an essence of tolerance and patience, an exemplar to their successors, a being with no space for herself, a woman without an identity and so on .As the woman has not been given due importance since ages past, Simone de Beauvoir remarks: “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman. No biological, psychological, or economic fate determines the figure that the human female presents in society; it is civilization as a whole that produces this creature, intermediate between male and eunuch, which is described as feminine”( 295).

The Postcolonial women writers like Kamala Markandaya, Nayantara Sahgal, Anita Desai, Shashi Deshpande, Bharathi Mukherjee, Gita Hariharan, Anita Nair, Manju Kapur  have brought about a tremendous change in the trend of depicting women characters in their novels. The foremost concern with these writers has been a demarcation of inner life and subtle interpersonal relationships. They unveil the hidden secrets by highlighting significance of portraying woman as an individual rebelling against the traditional role, breaking the shackles of exploitation and oppression, awakening with a sense of identity, to assert their individuality. Women writers redefine women in their literature.

          The nature of the self is something complicated. It is a constant thrash about going on within every human entity to find coherence among the selves. The innumerable selves within oneself are a source of constant conflict and lack of harmony inside a human being leads to the hypothetical question of the identity of the self. Margaret Chatterjee puts the problems correlated with the identity of the self thus:

 the question of the identity of the self is no less fraught with puzzles. In what sense are you the ‘same’ as you were ten years ago? There are similar puzzles too about the identity of physical things. (202)

 Anita Nair is a prolific Indian writer in English, who has been writing novels, short stories, poems, essays, children stories, plays, travelogues and editing works since 1997. She is best known for her novels - The Better Man and Ladies Coupe. She is a bold and straightforward writer. Her novels depict the real life of her characters. Her novels reveal the effect of social conditioning on women. They break the chains of social standards and do not confine themselves to the boundaries which limit women. It is evident that Nair breaks the chains of society in portraying her women characters. She never hesitates to tell the truth, however bitter it is. Her novels are the social document of the twenty-first century. The question she raises in the novel, Lessons in Forgetting makes us rethink about the ideological ground of man’s patriarchal role in the traditional society and think about the existence of alternative reality. The novel describes how a woman has to make painful choices in order to assert and retain her sense of self. In spite of their oppression, women resolve to redefine their identity in patriarchal social order. Savitha Singh opines that Anita Nair has done a commendable job in bringing out the positive role and positive transformation of women in the on-going battle of establishing female selfhood. (29)

            Lessons In Forgetting narrates the tale of Meera, the protagonist who lives in Lilac House with her grandmother, Lily, her mother, Saro and two children – Nayantara and Nikhil. In 1930s her father Raghavan Menon begins his life in Calcutta. He falls in love with Charo, a Bengali woman, marries her and has a girl child, Leela. Charo dies earlier, therefore Raghavan Menon sends Leela to Shantiniketan where a well-known Bengali director spots her. She becomes a part of the Hindi cinema as a famous actress with the name of Lily. She marries Sandor, a Hungarian painter. They come to live in Bangalore in Lilac House that Raghavan Menon has found them. Saro is their daughter. She grows independent and considers herself to be a woman of a unique taste. She falls in love with her best friend’s brother and marries him. They have a daughter, Meera, the protagonist of the novel .Saro’s husband dies earlier and she seeks refuge for herself and her daughter, Meera in Lilac House. After her father’s death Meera has some hard years which make her to lead a simpleton life. She never aspires big dreams:

Meera never dreamt big dreams. She had no desire for designer clothes, diamonds or expensive holidays…Enough to keep roof over their heads and food in their bellies.Enough to retain dignity and not to ask reluctant relatives for a temporary handout. Enough to live as they did. (41)

 Meera’s life is changed when the Lilac house is chosen for photo shoot. Giri, being the shooting crew happens to meet her and falls in love with her. He becomes intimate with her and her family too. Giri is swayed by the richness laid before him. For him, she is a bride with social grace and a beautiful old home. Giri, being a calculative persona of his future predicament from the village, Palakkad has found a job for him in the corporate world yet searching for the opportunity to reach the zenith of life. He wants to forget the reminiscences of his father in his yellowing banian and dhoti and the old decrepit house and relatives. He wants to acquire the polished lifestyle. So he marries Meera hoping to free of the yellowing past. With this intention of social status he marries her, but she is unaware of it : “With Meera, he would be able to move on. Finally he would be free of the yellowing past and the stench of making do. His. Like the lilac house, L’air du temps” (37). She considers herself as Hera, the Greek goddess sincerely waiting for the love of her Zeus, Giri .They have two children, Nayantara and Nikhil. He suggests her to be socialized and soon she becomes a cookbook writer. Her life is led by him completely.

Giri wants to start his own business to achieve his dream so he wants to sell the Lilac House but Meera rejects it. He is worried about his place on the corporate world and wants more than enough. Hence one day, in a party, he deserts Meera and disappears from her life, leaving her with two children and her mother and grandmother. Meera finds it difficult to manage, financially in Giri’s absence. She finds her life full of clichés. She does not agree to sell the Lilac house because she cannot sell the house as her grandfather has taken the house on ninety nine years lease. The house has to surrender to the original owners after forty five years. She now realizes that Giri has accepted her as a package.

 After Giri’s departure Meera’s life becomes miserable which she shares as, “We may starve to death but it will be in gracious surroundings” (111). So she takes up a job as a research assistant to Jak, the cyclone expert. Giri starts a new life and demands divorce. So Meera decides to give up her old identity of Hera as there is no Zeus in her life. She starts her second life as Giri does. She does not change anything, her hair, home, dreams, herself, as Giri comes in her life. Now, he has left her so she wants a change, which would give her feelings of   new woman, “Now that Meera has known it again, she finds strength” (186). She learns to burden Giri less with the demands of fatherhood. So she takes the responsibility of her children. She attends party on her own. She does not need anyone with her. She does not feel awkwardness in the party, which Nair writes: “A woman by herself at a party is like a man by himself” (183). Her realization comes in the way of her decision to start the second innings of her life with Jak, “…she has become will wither and die forever. She will be there for him, Meera decides” (325).

Smriti is the second most important character who rebels against the existing social orders such as dowry system, female feticide, etc. Anita Nair writes:

Despite the laws and regulations, women still find a way of discovering the sex of their unborn babies. If not the women, their families.They abort the fetus if it’s a girl. Soon there may come a day when there are no women left. (285)

 She makes her life down for the noble cause. The novelist, through Smiriti, presents the image of a new woman who is educated, courageous and capable   of creating a path of their own in his patriarchal world and moreover her plight cautions the young mind against   the containment and exploitation.

Smriti, the daughter of Jak and Nina resides with her father after the legal separation of her parents. Inspired by her father’s Indian stories,she comes to India in pursuit of her higher studies. She represents the mistaken identity.  India makes her an active member of the forum inspired by the slogans of the forum like “The dying daughters of India need you” (153)which creates awareness on dowry , burning the women and     female feticide in  little towns.   For an awareness campaign she goes to her father’s village, Minjikapuram in Tamil Nadu with her friend, Rishi Soman. When she visits a hospital there for treating glass injury she is shocked to see there, many pregnant women who have come for scanning to find the sex of the fetus. If it is a girl child, they do abortion either willingly or forcefully. Smriti finds it illegal and wants to stop it:

            ‘It’s illegal!’ Smriti’s voice rose. They do       it here. Why do you think we came here?      The scan doctor is not from this town. They bring him from somewhere else,            and he tells us if we ask him, the woman            whispered …. ‘All these pregnant      women, they come from various parts of       the district… It’s because of the scan      doctor. And then, if you want it, they‘ll        do the abortion here as well!’ (292).

            She tries to collect proof against all this for making a report. She meets a woman, Chinnathayi whose daughter dies at the nursing home after an abortion. Smriti wants some paper regarding this issue from her. Dr. Srinivasan and his men pass a wrong message to Smriti using Chinnathayi’s name and call her at sea beach. When Smriti comes there, three of them destroy her. “ They were animals, these men. They tore at the girl and it seemed the more she screamed, the more excited they became…It was the smell of blood” (317).She becomes a motionless, pathetic and frozen figure. Smriti, a girl brought up in the United States has got into the troubles when identifying herself with the fellow Indian woman; she considers it as her duty to amend the social injustice. In the words of Maya Vinay,

            Smriti in Lessons in Forgetting is a victim of such a mistaken identity. Men in India are still unequipped to face such a kind of modernity, which is an off shoot of progressive western education and upbringing. Smriti with all her frivolousness is also a girl who wants to bring about a reform in the society by her social activism. She is cruelly punished by the male society for her interference in local matters…she appears freak in the eyes of her community since she demonstrates the possibilities of her society to a group of people who are not yet ready to either grasp these possibilities or acknowledge them. (118-119)

Nair writes about how women want to be free to unburden their life through Jak’s mother, Sarada.  Her husband deserts her with a son for attaining sainthood and her parents blames her for that starts to live on her own with her son Kitcha, i.e. Jak as,” Appa’s dissatisfaction with everything around him-his home, his wife, his son”(149). She begins to work in a small school as a primary teacher in Math in the neighbourhood and later completes B.Ed to be economically independent. When her husband sends her a letter narrating the impossibilities of his return, she understands the real facet of her life and determines to lead a life for hers. So she remarries a physics teacher from Hyderabad. Thus Sarada stands as a fine epitome of woman’s struggle to lead a life of her.

Kala Chithi is another example of woman’s confrontation against ancient traditions. She is renamed as Vaidehi after her marriage to represent the ideal qualities of woman and wife. She is a rational woman who raises the question when her sister, Sarada, is considered responsible for her husband’s desertion of home and its duties as: “But how can you blame Akka? Athimbel is the one who went away, all of us know that!” (195). She subdues her pain with the help of Jak. She feels relieved of her pain when washing her hair in the waves as, “For the first time, I felt weightless. On an impulse I opened my hair and let the sea seep through it. My hair rose and neck ceased to ache. I began to laugh” (198). When she cuts hair as how she desires to be Ambi, her husband punishes her by not speaking to her. He becomes normal when she gets back a long strand of hair. When Ambi, her husband decides to remarry, because after seven years of marriage they do not have a child. Kala Chithi leaves him a long braid woven with jasmine and kanakambaram and her married name, Vaidehi. She cuts her hair and offers to him as, “This is all you ever wanted of me. Keep it. And let me go, I said, walking out” (206). She starts to live with Sarada resuming her old name, Kala Chithi.

Meera’s grandmother Lily, after her daughter’s death, becomes lonely. She advises Meera: “I don’t want to talk about the wind or the trees. If they bother you so much, chop them down!”(269). Meera finds Lily’s views as right as men and trees are the same. She no longer worries about pleasing her Zeus, Giri. Lily suggests Meera to start a new life if she has a chance: “It isn’t about cutting your hair or acquiring a new wardrobe….A new look that turns you into a new woman. Get real, Meera. Get real before you life slips away from you” (274). She advises her to be honest with herself and to have her own dreams. It inspires her to dream once more. Lily was proud of her being a national award winning actress. She wants to help Meera by easing some of the burden on her as she has the responsibility of all family members. Lily decides to go to her friend Zahira, the actress, who gives it all up some years ago and lives in Mysore now with a house full of animal whose son is a very successful television producer and he wants Lily to act in a new series. Lily is too old but excitement in her voice shows how happy she is to work. Thus she identifies herself with her role for T.V programmer and she is very independent in her decision as,” You don’t have to say anything. I am not asking you for permission. I am informing you of my decision” (273).

Lessons in Forgetting is a story of women’s quest to move on in life.  Moreover they design their future for themselves. Meera, by becoming an assistant of Prof. Jak becomes financially independent, adjusts expenditures and takes the responsibility of her family. She decides to start a new life with Prof. Jak. Sarada becomes a teacher in the school. She also becomes independent. She marries her colleague and starts a new life. Kala Chithi leaves her husband and a name after marriage, Vaidehi. She continues to resume her life with her old name, Kala Chithi. She cuts her hair, which causes weight to her. It shows her resistance against her suffering and emergence as a revolutionist. She lives with Jak to take care of him. Meera’s grandmother, as she remains alone due to Saro’s death, decides to stay at her friend house. Smriti’s life cause misery is revealed to her father Jak who considers it as his sole responsibility to fight against evil prejudices in India especially in his home town, Minjakapuram. The novel ends with a new beginning and learning a lesson in forgetting to move on life. In short, Anita Nair writes about the search of self of her woman characters and their assertion of the individual self.


Works Cited


Beauvoir,Simone de. The Second Sex. Trans. & ed.

           H. M.Parshley. London: Vintage. 1997. Print.

Chatterjee,Margaret. Philosophical Inquiries. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidas, 1968. Print.

Nair,Anita. Lessons in Forgetting. India: Harper       Collins, 2010. Print.

Sinha,Sunita. Post-Colonial Women Writers New      Perspectives. New Delhi: Atlantic      Publishers&             Distributers, 2008. Print.

Vinai,Maya. Interrogating Caste and Gender Anita Nair’s Fiction: Prestige Books International,

            New Delhi, 2014. Print.