The Poison of Love is the English translation of award winning Malayalam novelist K.R. Meera’s original work ‘Meera Sadhu’. At first sight, the book does not appear to be empowering or have a feminist spirit. For a lot of people, it might even seem like the tale of a helpless woman who has lost control over her life. But in fact, it is exactly in her life’s lawlessness and unpredictability that the protagonist Tulsi’s strength and resolve lies. The story revolves around the courtship and marriage of Tulsi and Madhav. Through them, K.R. Meera perfectly captures the helpless and entrapped feelings of women in toxic relationships.
As one reads on, Tulsi seems to represent at least in part every woman living within the confines of patriarchy. In the author’s note to her original Malayalam work, Meera writes about how she heard from many of her readers that Tulsi’s experiences mirrored their own, “I had imagined that there would be only two or three Tulsis in the world, apart from the sixteenth-century poet Meera Bai. But later, to my horror, I realised that this world has produced and devastated countless Tulsis. Perhaps, every one of us cannot help turning into a Tulsi at some point in our lives.”
Meera has adopted a style of narration where she goes back and forth in time, quite effectively capturing Tulsi’s original elation and later resentment in the same frame. K.R. Meera’s narration of Tulsi’s life has many parallels to the story of Mirabai, who escaped her oppressive marriage by devoting herself to Lord Krishna.
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When the narration begins, Tulsi has adopted the life of a Meera Sadhu (widow) in Vrindavan. The widows of Vrindavan are perhaps the modern day Meera Bais, escaping oppressive conditions and societal scrutiny by dedicating themselves to God. Their status as widows living in the service of God has, in the times since Meera Bai, been idealised as pure and spiritual protecting them from the evils of widowhood. Through the course of this process, women who lost their husbands and were driven out of their homes and forced to live ascetic lives have found a community, though rather dismal, in Vrindavan.
However, Tulsi is not the quintessential victim who you immediately feel sympathetic towards. She does end her torturous relationship with Madhav, that too in the most unexpected manner. Her method of breaking free is not what most people would approve of, nor does it end her love and desire for Madhav. As such, the story does not present the protagonist as the relatable victim. Instead, her anger and resentment takes on frightening forms thus encapsulating the reality of abusive relationships. There is nothing black and white about them – only the continued entrapment of an individual in a cycle of abuse of cleverly masked as love.
Tulsi’s anger and resentment takes on frightening forms thus encapsulating the reality of abusive relationships.
The first thing you learn about Tulsi is her intense love and desire for her husband which continuously gnaws at her insides and fills her with guilt and indignation. An IIT graduate, Tulsi is portrayed as a smart and capable woman with the drive to make her own decisions. Madhav, a charming and irresistible journalist comes into her life like a breath of fresh air and sweeps her off her feet nearing the eve of her marriage. He convinces her that her life is not one to be dedicated to a man and her capabilities not to be wasted in the drudgeries of performing the duties of a wife. His offer is one of companionship where she could grow and explore her possibilities. She also reminisces about how he narrates stories of being with 27 other women previously but has never loved anyone the way he loves her. She readily leaves her family and almost everything she had ever known in the hope that she will be the last woman he loves. This is the premise on which their marital relationship begins.
Tulsi’s intense attraction towards Madhav also has the element of intrigue and the excitement of being the woman who finally makes him settle down. This captures perfectly the way women have been conditioned to understand and receive love in a system where promiscuity for a man is charming and attractive. Madhav’s deception and lies are masked by his apparent charm and Tulsi struggles to cope with the realisation that his relationships have continued after marriage. As the narrative unfolds, the IIT graduate Tulsi gets restricted to the role of a housemaid taking care of Madhav’s every need and nurturing their children. The love and intimacy of the initial days disappear and Madhav becomes distant. At this point, Tulsi is trapped in her own home, which she once thought paradise.
“Look Tulsi, be practical! No man can ever confine himself to a single woman. That’s the way men are built.”
“What about women?” I asked.
“That’s different. You are genetically tuned… I am bloody fed up!”
This captures perfectly the way women have been conditioned to understand and receive love in a system where promiscuity for a man is charming and attractive.
In Meera’s narration, Madhav and Tulsi are not mere individuals. They are representatives of the men and women we see around us. Madhav embodies all that is praised as masculine. He believes in a natural division of responsibilities within the house for a man and a woman. While he understands and expresses his sexuality quite freely, he reduces that of a woman’s to something for his pleasure. At the same time he can seem progressive to an outsider.
On the other hand, Tulsi is the embodiment of a typical woman stuck in an abusive relationship, whether physical or emotional. Every protest she raises is “lovingly” silenced by her husband with his assurances and calm words. She wants to believe, even in the face of glaring proof otherwise, that she is the only woman he truly loves. Her education is of no use to her now as she has herself accepted her relegation to the four walls of her home. In the absence of financial independence or familial support she has no more options before her. This is not just the story of Tulsi but that of thousands of women everywhere.
But unlike most women facing the same fate, Tulsi soon breaks free and takes control of her life in a rather drastic and perhaps even strange way. She leaves Madhav and takes her kids along. Although the path she chooses after this point may seem strange and eccentric, it offers her a sense of liberation and autonomy. She poisons her children and while they lie dead in the same room, spends a night with the unaware Madhav. The sight he wakes up to is his two children dead and blue.
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Having lost everything she ever cared for, she decides to strip Madhav of everything she had ever given him. Living in Vrindavan with widows as one amongst them, taking alms for subsistence is a kind of penance for Tulsi. The cost of breaking free for her was her children and even then she seemed to be bound by the shackles of her desire for the man who took everything from her. She waits in Vrindavan for the day when finally Madhav arrives in search for her – a broken man. By then she had learned to live a life of self-torture. Having witnessed Madhav’s final downfall as a middle aged man with no more women in his life and nothing to live for, Tulsi awaits death in the ruins of Vrindavan.
The story at first glance may not seem empowering or happy. But Meera’s portrayal of Tulsi’s emotions, her extreme hatred and intense desire for Madhav, is the situation of many Indian women trapped in abusive relationships. The “genetically different” (read superior) men have this ability to convince women of their love even when hurting them in all ways possible. The general culture in which women are raised have continuously been telling them that men may have many intimate relationships even if they truly love only one woman. Popular culture has created a fascination around the idea of that one virtuous woman different from all others who can make the promiscuous man fall in love and stay monogamous.
Tulsi’s desire for Madhav even after his fake promises crushed her dreams, show exactly this. Even her freedom does not take her out of the system that oppresses her. This romanticism of toxicity in relationships has led to a culture of women distancing themselves from other women and measuring their worth based on their worth in the eyes of a man. Thus, even the most educated, smart and talented women get reduced to nothing but a complement to a man, entrapping her in a life of resentment and regret. Not all such Tulsis break free and just like Tulsi, even when they do, they’re never free from the bondage.
Popular culture has created a fascination around the idea that one virtuous woman, different from others, can make the promiscuous man stay monogamous.
To conclude, K.R. Meera’s The Poison of Love is definitely not a light read. It lays bare the confusing realities of life and gets you thinking about the lives of the thousands of Tulsis around. While many may not appreciate or understand her decisions and may even find them disturbing, that is exactly what K.R. Meera seems to want. Abuse, toxicity and the crushing oppression of gender roles are talked about by many, but it is the tinge of pungency that Meera brings to her characters that make her novels interesting and thought provoking.