April 05, 2009



WHERE EVERY FAMILY wants a hundred sons, but not even one daughter, where infant girls are killed using many ingenious methods, or even simpler, not allowed to be born, in such a land, what is the future of womankind?

Manjula Padmanabhan’s recently published novel, Escape is the dystopian vision of such a society where the no-girls policy has been taken to its  extreme; for now, it is not only individual families that conspire to kill women, it is the government itself that has officially outlawed and exterminated women.

In this “world” (a country masquerading as the whole world, even as the rest of the world ostracises it for its crimes), a coup by clone technology wielding generals has eliminated the ‘need’ for women, since they see women primarily as ‘breeders’, and weak breeders at that, who cannot compete with the perfection of clone technology. What then is the fate of the lone girl who has survived in this world, not knowing even that she is to become a woman?

Escape is the story of this lone girl, Meiji, and what is remarkable is that it traces two journeys at once. Meiji must set out on a perilous journey with Youngest, the youngest of the three uncles who have raised her, if she is to have any chance of survival. At the same time, on the cusp of adolescence, she must also understand what a woman is, in the absence of any other living specimens to guide or even assure her that to be woman is to be normal. For, in this world, man has become default and woman is a relic of a past world, a species of monster that needs to be made extinct. In some ways, this inner journey of Meiji’s, with its confusion and bitterness, is more exciting than the physical journey through the wasteland, which never comes close to being really threatening. The inner journey on the other hand is perilous, for, having only vaguely heard of women (and their attendant evils), Meiji comes dangerously close to self-loathing on realising that she is the last of a tribe that has been exterminated.

Yesterday you told me that when I finish growing up completely, I’ll be a monster,” she said. “And now you’re telling me that I’m the only one left in our world?

When it is hard for her to even visualize a world where women were human beings, she must make another leap to come to terms with the changes happening in her own body  and understand that womanhood brings with it some unique abilities.

Youngest has a journey of his own to make, both as Meiji’s escort and protector, and towards understanding and controlling his own sexual impulses. Some scenes are not easy to stomach — instinctively, I cringed at the description of sexual attraction that Youngest feels towards Meiji even as he fights it. Yet, in a world that has killed women, Youngest is one small symbol of hope — of a man who can not only lust, but also feel, love and remember. When he recalls the cousin whom he loved,

She was everything to me. Mother, sister, wife, lover — everything mixed up together. It used to be considered shameful and indecent to have thoughts like that for family members but the time for shame was over…Our time together was beyond imagining. We didn’t hide it from the others. It was too pure, too beautiful, to be snuffed out.

There is no easy closure to this journey, but inspite of leaving us with no answers, Escape is a very worthwhile read both for its many layered story and for the way it has integrated a question that all of us who see India’s declining sex ratios must ask.


Publisher: Picador India

Price: Rs. 295

11 comments to Escape

  • nevermind

    Reading suggestion: The Cleft, by Doris Lessing. Widely divergent reviews




    Always a good sign, divergence. Just like everyone hates the BBC.

  • Hi

    I am a first time visitor to your blog and I apprecaite what I saw here. Meanwhile, I have something to share – not connected with any of your posts.

    Just wondering if you any of you have noticed an ad in the newspapers, from Advertising Agencies Association of India, inviting entries for a Cannes competition. here is the link from aaaindia site.


    The theme for the competition is noble and the photo in the ad looks really touching.

    But I felt that the ad copy that went with the photo – “It’s your turn to Exploit Her…” was terribly in poor taste!! and that too coming from an apex body for advertisements….!!!!! It is very sad that such subtle exploitations of women go unnoticed!

  • I feel very strongly about female foeticide and infanticide.. and reading this post.. makes me want to buy the book. 🙂 There, of course, cannot be any short cut to solve this problem… and I guess art just shows you a mirror of how things are.

  • bluebottle

    Re Aruna Srinivasan’s post:
    I did see that, and was amazed by the insensitivity of the advertisement. I think they’ve changed the tagline now — the poster they have up on their website has a different line — so perhaps someone complained and they took notice.

  • Re: AAA advertisement discussed here earlier: Yes, the tag line is replaced with a better one – calling for action and entries. Don’t know who brought that change – but That is the kind of awareness and the change that we want to see in all spheres !!

  • Tania

    Re Aruna Srinivasan’s post and bluebottle’s reply

    The tagline has not changed and neither has the poster. Yeah, it’s all in a good cause, but this is crossing the line with creative license. Protest here:

  • Re: Tania’s note on aaa ad’. Like bluebottle pointed out the tag line is changed in the website on this page of the site! Check out the link.


    And yesterday’s Times of India Chennai edition in print carried the changed version !!

    I hope the change is complete and not in parts !!!

  • apu

    nevermind – thanks for the reading suggestions.

    aruna – welcome to UV! I had a look at that poster – shocking it was. I’m glad its been changed… perhaps they realized in what bad taste it was

    bluesprite – yes, the book is defn worth a read, esp for the way she has made it seem so “normal”.

  • winthrop Allen

    Is it the mothers or fathers who most likely support female infanticide? I have never seen this question addressed.

  • rupa

    His Singh I like the novel. Actually the novel is a good example of modern Indian ecofeminist science fiction. It shows the terrible situation of future India, where all womens were extriminited. It makes us thought about todays social and political situation, which can led such dystopian situation of India in future.

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