Title: The Daughters of Madurai

Author: Rajasree Variyar

Publisher: Hachette, 30 May 2023; RRP: $32.99

Rajasree Variyar was born in Sydney but now lives in London. She has an MA in Creative Writing. The Daughters of Madurai is Rajasree’s debut novel, which was shortlisted for the Hachette UK 2019 Mo Siwecharran prize. She has had other successes with short story writing.

This is a story about a mother and daughter, Janani and Nila. But the novel reveals much more about circumstances and life in Madurai, India. It is told in a way that allows the reader to gain an insight into and hopefully empathy for the cultural and traditional manner of many families, particularly poorer and lower caste people.

Young girls were married off at an early age and traditionally went to live with their husband’s family, where they were often considered to be hired help. The girls’ families paid a dowry to the husbands’ families for the marriage to occur. Hence raising daughters was seen as placing families into extreme poverty when the time came for them to marry – many female babies were ‘dealt with’ at birth, a harsh, cruel, and desperate act. For some groups the act of infanticide was the only way to survive as a family. Sons were seen as wanted for the continuation of families. ‘A girl is a burden; a girl is a curse.’

Janani’s story is set in 1992 when her life is proving to be a tremendous struggle in her arranged marriage in India. Her low-caste mother-in-law is a punitive woman who insists on Janani doing all the household tasks and cooking. Janani’s husband is ineffectual, unhelpful, and defers to his mother. It is difficult to imagine the injustice of the situation. The fear of delivering a baby girl instead of a boy and having no power to act against the consequences of birthing a female child is ever present. The heartbreaking account of Janani’s early married life is at times overwhelming. Janani, however, is determined to overcome.  

Rajasree Variyar talks about The Daughters of Madurai

@ the BN Book Club

Two decades later, in 2019, Nila and her mother and father in Australia decide to travel to India for a visit to her dying grandfather. Curious regarding the family background, Nila knows extraordinarily little about her mother’s side of the family back in India; she is hopeful the trip will fill the gaps. Her parents, particularly her mother, have forever been silent regarding her own family until the secrets begin unravelling during the Madurai visit. But Nila has her own secret – a secret that she is fearful of telling her parents.  

The story of Janani and Nila and their family is narrated with vivid and detailed descriptions of Madurai, village life and events from the past. It is harsh but hopeful; there is sadness and disbelief that lingers throughout this story, but the characters are enormously resilient and engaging.

Rajasree Variyar has produced a story that informs, entertains, and deals with the difficult topic of gender in Indian society.  Written with a gentle but powerful hand, The Daughters of Madurai doesn’t disappoint.

Reviewed by: Heather Whitford Roche

Ballarat Writers Book Review Group, May 2023

Review copy provided by the publisher