Annu Subramanian teaches world literature and writing at a college preparatory school in Albany, New York. Her debut novel Waiting for the Perfect Dawntraces the arc of the journeys made by five generations of Indian women from a single family, not always biologically related, from the late 1890s to the 21st century, in their struggle for equality and women’s rights. The novel begins at a time when the Sarda Act—the 1950 Child Marriage Restraint Act passed in India to discourage child marriages, defined for boys under 18 and girls under 14—had not yet been enacted..

Bhuvana is an under-age bride in an era when women were regarded as “money-minting, baby-making machines.” Even though she leads a privileged life as the only daughter of a rich landowner, her parents give her no say in choosing her husband. Horoscopic agreement, manipulated by the groom’s unscrupulous mother, leads to a tragic marriage between an innocent young girl and a cruel, money-grabbing, drunkard and womanizer.

Her daughter, Aruna, fares better by going to college, but she is frowned upon by the community when she chooses to remain a “spinster.” Aruna establishes an orphanage, the Mercy House. Since she is unmarried, Aruna cannot legally adopt, but she brings up an orphan, Akila, as her own daughter.

Akila marries a wealthy widower with three sons. But this is a marriage of convenience to provide a mother for the sons and to help Mercy House financially. Her daughter, Tara, is more independent, but ends up marrying a man without knowing much about him. Tara’s daughter, Nina, studies in the United States and returns to India to work as a journalist. Nina is, at last, the woman who finds “the perfect dawn” when she falls in love with an American doctor. They get married and adopt an orphan born to a Hindu-Muslim couple.

The leitmotif “to wait for the perfect dawn” is promising, but does not bind the ends of the story. The plot seems a bit contrived, and the book is more a documentary that describes the social evils of 19th and 20th century India than it is a novel. The characters are two-dimensional and serve as allegories of a time rather than real people. There is also no consistent narrative perspective to pull together the various plot strands, and the book finally seems like a collection of five short stories loosely strung together.

Still, Subramanian must be commended for her ambitious theme of pointing out the many social evils that plague India: girls unwelcome in families, infanticide, abandoned girl babies, teenage pregnancies, caste prejudice, a fatalistic ethos (“bad star, bad time”), lack of equal rights for women, the dowry system, and religious conflicts. Also, some of the descriptions of pastoral Brinda capture the beauty of rural India.

Lakshmi Mani taught at the Rochester Institute of Technology for 20 years. She writes on American and Indian-American literature, and is a National Endowment for the Humanities fellow.

 

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