Here is a paper I wrote last year on Samina Ali's novel Madras on Rainy Days.
Samina Ali explores the conflict between fantasy and reality in identity as her characters’ misperceptions about India and America clash in Madras on Rainy Days. The theme of duplicity takes an unusual twist when Layla returns to India, seeking a life she discovers is a fantasy shattered by the harsh realities of a patriarchal society. Orientalism usually involves misperceptions of Eastern culture by those in the West but some of Ali’s characters are equally ignorant of Western life. In Layla’s case, she has a hybrid identity as an American and Indian resident, but her quest for fulfillment in India leads to disappointment. Layla is not the only character whose beliefs are challenged by a multicultural India. Those around her find American culture has encroached into India, creating a different world than the traditional one they have grown up in.
Layla seeks what she believes will be a life of fulfillment and contentment as Sameer’s wife. She has lived in America (albeit a somewhat secluded life) and India, seeing both nations’ culture. Layla is so dedicated to life in India that she risks her life to do so, knowing her aborted pregnancy could lead to her death due to her people’s strict cultural requirements for a virgin bride. Layla’s secret threatens to ruin her chance of living in the patriarchal society but she soon finds there are other problems to face, all of them dealing with the different aspects of duplicity.
Madras on Rainy Days explores the themes of duplicity in terms of dual nature, deceit, and double standards. Ali uses the Layla character to explore a hybrid identity, “the quality or state of being double or twofold” (“duplicity”). Ali also examines the effects of the falsehoods, “contradictory doubleness of thought, speech, or action” (“duplicity”) surrounding Layla. Ali hints at this when Layla recalls, “In my family, the only things revealed and discussed were those things that didn’t matter. This way, none of us got hurt by what another did” (23). Layla will find her family is not the only one hiding secrets. Duplicity is also seen by the patriarchal society’s hybrid nature which hides a double standard. Layla learns the Muslim Indian society she inhabits presents an idealized view of things with a much different reality. She discovers the patriarchal society hides and excuses the sins of men while both exposing and punishing the sins of women.
The idea of duplicity (in terms of a hybrid identity) is seen throughout the novel. There is the duplicity of Layla being both American and Indian. Layla’s American identity is used to condemn her and others when it comes to bad behavior. “I had faced this all my life, the way each country held a moral stance over the other. It was as though each nation had its own uniform and I wore the shirt of one, the trousers of the others, and both sides were shooting at me” (26). Layla finds conflict from those around her as criticizing her for “American” faults. She seeks an Indian identity but is told she is too American. If Layla’s Indian neighbors and relatives find fault with her, they claim it is because she has spent too much time in America. If she has a virtue, it is due to her Indian upbringing.
Layla seems to have an idealized notion of India as a refuge from American culture, but Sameer suggests American culture has encroached into India. “Take a look around you, baby, your America has reached even here, the darkest part of India. Tandoori pizza, lamb hamburgers, listen to the Hindi film music. It’s all disco and synthesizers. The next time we come to Tank Bund, there might be a statue of the American president! Why not? Nothing goes uncorrupted…not even you” (117). Sameer’s comments suggest the life Layla seeks in India is an illusion and she has been compromised in more than one way. Indeed, the idea of cultural invasion is shown through Nate and Layla’s brief affair, something Sameer is aware of, “It was not possible anymore for him to make even a broad statement about cultural invasion without thinking specifically about my body” (118). Sameer’s words are ironic because he notes Layla’s corruption several times in the text but he hides his own corruption by Naveed.
Both Layla and Sameer are mistaken about life in India and America. Layla tells Sameer she knows what life in India is like, “I’m not as ignorant of India as you think. I’ve spent half my life here. It’s where I’ve always felt more comfortable. I’m part of something here” (177). Layla is comfortable with the ideal of India. However, she fails to understand the reality of the patriarchal society, arguably because of her idealism as seen with “At such times, we saw not with our eyes; but with hope” (226). Ali does not give the reader any insight into Layla’s blind faith in India, especially in light of the way her father mistreated her and her mother. It is arguable Sameer is blinded by this same hope. Layla accuses Sameer of knowing little (if anything) about America, “What do you know about the U.S., Sameer? I mean other than what you’ve read or seen in film” (177). Sameer sees America as a land of opportunity but Layla tells her husband he will be seen as an outsider, he will have to obtain an American degree (despite his Indian engineering degree), and he will begin from the ground up.
Duplicity (in terms of falsehood) is found throughout the novel. Layla comes to India, preparing to wed, hiding the fact she is not a virgin. Layla lies to her family, her future husband, and her future in-laws. Sameer and his family are duplicitous as well with Sameer and his family initially hiding his disfigured leg. This is one of several falsehoods on their part as Sameer lies about his sexual identity and that he has a lover. Sameer’s mother lies about her son’s sexual identity, the circumstances surrounding his accident, and his subsequent disfigurement from her withholding medical treatment for him.
Madras on Rainy Days also contains duplicity in terms of the Indian Muslim society’s façade hiding a double standard. This duplicity is the difference between the ideals of a patriarchal society and its reality. There is the idealist patriarchal society which gives men and women different roles which are supposed to make for a satisfying life for men and women. However, behind these ideals are the reality of a world in which women’s protections are lip-service. The failure of a patriarchal society is seen throughout the text. Early on, Ali establishes Layla’s father’s cruelty towards her and her mother. Early in the novel, Layla recalls her father “…hadn’t simply taken on a second wife, something Amme had been raised to prepare for, a man’s right here by Old City laws, but he had done the unthinkable and abandoned her” (42). It is arguable this duplicity can be seen with Layla’s dad, the heart surgeon who helps people in public, and beats others behind closed doors. Layla ponders how, “It was hard to believe that the very hands that had signed the divorce deeds, that beat me, saved lives every day” (42). Another instance of familial duplicity occurs when Henna goes to live with her husband’s family and is mistreated rather than cared for. While Henna is able to return home, she and her family suffer disgrace because the patriarchal society condemns her for leaving her husband’s family (regardless that they were mistreating her).
The duplicity (double standard) of religion is seen when Layla says she is entitled to leave her husband under Islamic law but the reality is different. Roshan tells Layla, “You should leave him, of course. It’s a sin to live with such a man. Islam prohibits it.” Layla is entitled to leave Sameer but Roshan also understands the reality of the patriarchal society she and Layla live in, “People will blame you, Layla-bebe. They will even say you made him into the man he is, that you weren’t enough to satisfy him so he was forced to look the other way” (237). Layla faces a terrible double standard, one confirmed by those who are supposed to protect her. When Layla tells Abu Uncle what happened, he defends Sameer, telling Layla, “So what if he had …recreational sex? What else was he to do? Look at him, he’s handsome, he’s fit, he must have desires, tremendous desires” (241). Time after time, Sameer’s fornication and adultery are excused because he is a man, even though they are forbidden by his culture.
Ali, Samina. Madras on Rainy Days: A Novel. Picador; Reprint edition, 2005.
“Duplicity.” Merriam-Webster.com. Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-
webster.com/dictionary/duplicity. Accessed 4 May. 2017.