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The Vegetarian is a reminder that patriarchy is a universal language

Sneha Vakharia | Updated on: 6 July 2016, 18:37 IST

Your father, like many fathers, is a patriarch. He displays neither shame nor empathy. And he never apologizes. He, like many fathers, has been taught to present an invulnerable facade.

Sometimes, like many fathers, he hits.

Your brother inherited your father's temper. He knows how to fight back. It secretly makes your father proud.

Your older sister works hard in the kitchen. She escapes being hit by making herself scarce. By giving fewer reasons for anger. By walking gently on eggshells.

But you don't know how to fight back. And you can't walk gently on eggshells.

So you develop your own defence mechanism. You learn the subtle art of spacing out. Of not paying any attention, of not thinking too hard, of not delving too deep, of not feeling. When he hits, you think about other things. It makes you a special kind of invulnerable.

Life goes on.

You grow up.

One day, you're introduced to a man your family would like you to marry.

He isn't special. He doesn't sweep you off your feet. He doesn't seem enthused by you either.

But you can't articulate what is wrong with him. There are few reasons to say yes, but no reasons to say no. And so you take the easier route - you marry him.

He provides for you. He goes to work, you cook him food. He appreciates your culinary skills. He doesn't vocalise it, but you can tell from how hungrily he eats his dinner.

And, on nights when he's in the mood for that other service your are bound, by law, to provide to him, you oblige.

And then things start to go awry

Some nights you resist his advances. Some nights he insists. Some nights he uses persuasion first. Then he uses brute force. You push him away. Then remember that he is stronger. Then give up. Then let him happen to your body.

Aren't you glad you learnt the subtle art of spacing out? Of not paying any attention, of not thinking too hard, of not delving too deep, of not feeling?

So when he uses force, you think about other things. It makes you a special kind of invulnerable.

He thinks you're behaving funny. Oddly unresponsive, he thinks.

So he complains about it to your parents.

Your parents are appalled. Your father hangs his head in shame, because he failed to rear you as a good wife. You are neither loving nor giving. You don't smile enough. You don't perform your duties well.

Your father apologises to your husband, and it's the first time you hear him apologise.

Your husband leaves you. Your parents beg for him to take you back. Your brother and sister take turns to talk to him. But he never comes back.

And you're informed, every day forth, that you're worse for it.

Why this sounds familiar

Thus begins The Vegetarian, the book that won Han Kang the Man Booker International prize. (It is the only book to have won the award. All other Man Booker International awards have been given for a body of work, much like the Nobel prize for Literature). It is the story of a woman who gives up eating meat because of a dream.

It is a story set in Korea. And it speaks of a culture that cannot fathom vegetarianism. A culture that thinks of it as a personal failing. An unwelcome aberration. Deserving of punishment.

A culture where, if you get bitten by a dog, the dog is put down and you're told to eat it.

A culture that asks, "If she won't eat meat, then what will she eat?"

In many ways it is an antithesis of our culture - one where we're struggling to assert our freedom to eat the meat of our choice.

The narrative feels alien. The cultural nuances disturbing. You will recognize very little of your own life in this novel. The art forms, the medical health facilities, the portrait Kang draws of gloomy suburban Korea - it will all be unfamiliar.

And yet, the patriarchy that rears it's ugly head across the narrative is exactly the same as patriarchy everywhere.

The abusive father. The exploitative brother-in-law. Marital rape.

Those are the bits you will relate to. On a terrain so foreign that the only markers on the horizon you will recognise are abuse and patriarchy.

And you will settle into the unhappy understanding that among all the universal languages that transcend cultural barriers, abuse of the woman is one.

Read The Vegetarian just for that.

First published: 6 July 2016, 18:37 IST
Sneha Vakharia @sneha_vakharia

A Beyonce-loving feminist who writes about literature and lifestyle at Catch, Sneha is a fan of limericks, sonnets, pantoums and anything that rhymes. She loves economics and music, and has found a happy profession in neither. When not being consumed by the great novels of drama and tragedy, she pays the world back with poems of nostalgia, journals of heartbreak and critiques of the comfortable.