Dr. Nisha Nambiar

Asst. Professor of English, Krishna Menon
Memorial Government Women’s College
([email protected])


The paper traces the journey of a disturbed individual in Anita Nair’s The Better Man by exploring the emotional boundaries confronting him. The trauma of having to negotiate between one’s fractured inner self as well as the need to camouflage the non-existence of such a self becomes appallingly apparent. In the process it delineates the subtle shades of an individual’s inner being and his existential anguish. It probes Mukundan’s psyche, bruised and battered by his childhood experiences owing to the tyranny of his father. He is, thus forced to shun society and live a secluded life. The views of the Indian psychoanalyst and author, SudhirKakar are applied to shed light on how the protagonist’s infantile experiences become the basis of his underlying personality.

Keywords :

Psyche, inner self, childhood experiences, personality

Culture constitutes the psychological mindset of an individual and forges his identity. Studies have validated that abuse in early childhood shatters a child’s self-esteem and confidence. This casts its gloomy long shadow on an individual and affects his cultural consciousness. Early Indian psychoanalysts like Girindrasekhar Bose and others adapted the western classical mode of approach having incorporated the principles and values of Indian culture. In recent times, Sudhir Kakar relates his theoretical concepts to the Freudian psychoanalytical tradition and is one of the most reputed scholars in the field of psychoanalysis and culture, along withGeorge Devereux, Geza Roheim, Abram Kardiner, Erik Erikson, and others. He resonates the views of his mentor Erik Ericson who considered the process of identity formation as an ongoing one and as one that was inseparable from his cultural and historical factors.

While western ideology stresses on individualism with minimal familial ties, the Indian context is quite different wherein the individual is entangled in the symbiotic womb of the family system. Though the family supports him in braving the vicissitudes of life, it later leaves him   unprepared to take decisions and handle life. To face the challenges that confront him, he develops various strategies to construct an outer social self. He grovels in uncertainty thus distancing himself from his true inner identity. Kakar’s ground breaking work, The Inner World: A Psycho-analytic Study of Childhood and Society in India published in 1978 entails a scholarly and comprehensive account of the question of Indian identity from a psychoanalytic perspective. Speaking of an Indian identity, Kakar states:

Identity as used here, is meant to convey the process of synthesis between inner life and outer social reality as well as the feeling of personal continuity and consistency within oneself. It refers to the sense of having a stake in oneself, and at the same time in some kind of confirming community.   (2)

Kakar has aligned psychology, anthropology and religion, three separate disciplines in the history of Western thought with distinct genealogies to interpret the Indian psyche. In his Inner World, Kakar conducts a psychoanalytic analysis of the role of the father in the Indian child’s socio-emotional development during it’s early childhood. Anita Nair is one such contemporary Indian English writer whose works have dealt with themes of introspection and self-discovery. Her novels impart an intimacy having been written from her first-hand experience of the locale and events. Her debut novel, The Better Man (1999) set in the fictitious village of Kaikurussi is moulded on the lines of her ancestral village of Mundakottukurussi near Shornur in Kerala and reflects the minutiae of day-to-day social activities there. The Better Man delineates the subtle shades of the individuals’ inner being and their existential trauma. Tracing the life of the protagonist, Mukundan, the paper attempts to explore how our adult development has its foundations firmly rooted in the inner life of the child within us. This will be reinforced by applying Kakar’s views that an individual’s infantile experiences become the basis of his underlying personality. The narrative unfolds with the protagonist, Mukundan Nair, a retired government employee and a bachelor returning to his native village Kaikurussi. On his forced return to his gargantuan house (tharavad), he is haunted by the ghosts of his mother and his ancestors and a sense of failure. He constantly reproaches himself for abandoning his mother to the mercy of his father and finds himself unable to measure up to his still alive and domineering eighty-nine year old father, Achuthan Nair. The novelist narrates the struggle of the protagonist, Mukundan Nair through the political and social reality of his time to become a better man.

The paper investigates how patriarchy works psychologically and co-relates patriarchal culture and the caste system in carving out an Indian identity. Though patriarchy has common features across societies, it combines with other dominant structures and acts differently in each society. Patriarchy is described as a system of social structures and practices “that privilege some men over all others, including other men, and enable their automatic access to intellectual, spiritual and material resources” (Geetha 8). In the Indian society, the male child’s subordination to the father is temporary as he takes up the father’s role as the head. But in the case of some men, they remain brutalized throughout their lives fighting a psychic battle as the case in point. The Better Man delineates the picture of a matrilineal joint family system of Kerala in its transition to a modern nuclear family structure. Though the old joint family system has begun disintegration, vestiges of former practices linger. The uncle’s position (karnavar), vested with supreme authority in the tharavad (ancestral home) has been occupied by the father/husband, Achuthan Nair who wields authority on his wife and son. Rather than resorting to construct a matrilineal tharavad in Malabar writhing under the agonies of a patriarch as in O. Chandu Menon’s Indulekha (1889) or M.T. Vasudevan Nair’s Nalukettu (1959), Nair’s narrative lays bare the psycho-social insecurities and instabilities that impinge the minds of the marginalised lot (the women, children, servants and men of the lower caste) due to patriarchal dominance. The gargantuan tharavad is not presented as a site of the former glory and resplendence of Mukundan’s family. Nor is there any of the sentimental attachment usually associated with one’s ancestral home. Nair’s trope of the tharavad and its dark rooms, long corridors lined with portraits of fierce faced gods and goddesses and the steep teakwood staircase provides a metaphor for a mental state and the disturbing memories that have been coursing through the mind of Mukundan. The tyranny of the father from whom he wanted to escape lay hidden in every crook and crevice. The foreboding space of the tharavad emerges as Mukundan staggers around at night chased by the bellowing ghosts of his mother and other relatives. Metaphorically it signifies the protagonist’s groping through the dark alleys of his past and guilt ridden memories of abandoning his mother. The house could also symbolise the Indian society in general and the Kerala society in particular, shackled by the fetters of patriarchal dominance. The sixth chapter of the novel appropriately titled ‘The Echo of the Clogs’ marks the entry of the patriarch,Achuthan Nair. The “tap tap”(72) of the wooden clogs communicated his presence and authority, his moods of impatience, annoyance and wrath; in short the very man himself. As he moved over to his new house with his mistress, he left the clogs behind “as they had served their purpose.” Another strategy employed in asserting his position was the use of rhetorical statements which the listener was meant to answer. This was for Achuthan Nair to be convinced that “the gospel truth of his words had been understood by the inferior intelligence of the person standing before him” (51). The following quote illustrates this:

‘You [Mukundan] will never make anything of your life.  All you will be fit for is ploughing the fields!’ he [Achuthan Nair] would bellow, pausing only to question, ‘Tell me, what will you be fit for when you grow up?’

And Mukundan would reply, hurt and shame thickening his voice, ’To plough the fields.’ (70)

The turmoil in Mukundan’s mind finds no solace in his home or the idyllic landscape of Kaikurussi. On his return, Mukundan cocoons himself to the new section of the tharavad where he is free from his tormenting memories of the past.  His life in the government quarters in Bangalore “in no way resembled the hell he had been exiled to” (13). Away from his village, Mukundan interacted freely with his colleagues and was successful in building up his career. He ruled the Club Library as the librarian, a job which he took up with zest not owing to his love for books or reading (a desire wiped out by his father) but the library took the place of a family and Mukundan donned “the role of head of a household” (14). The karnavar in traditional Nair families of Malabar managed the daily affairs of the tharavad and was responsible for the well-being of its members (Gough 339). Simulating the role of the karnavar, Mukundan showers his attention on the books as “unlike human beings it demanded little from him and claimed no rights” (14). Mukundan’s dream of assuming the role of his father (which he was incapable of in Kaikurussi) finds release in the form of a librarian. Throughout his life he yearns for the approval of his father who is never satisfied with him.

The novel probes Mukundan’s psyche, bruised and battered by his childhood experiences and the tyranny of his father which forces him to shun society as he is unable to emotionally identify with his own village and the people. The titles, “The Reluctant Native” and “Seeking to Escape”, given to the second and third chapters of the narrative are indicative of the mindset of the protagonist. In The Inner World, Kakaroffers an interesting explanation of the father-son relationship in the Indian Hindu family and its consequences on identity formation. Kakar maintains that the boy in the Indian context, experiences two births. The first, after his biological birth, when he finds himself “enveloped in, and often overpowered by, his mother’s protective nurturing and love” (127). As his world of childhood widens, he is evicted from the “intimate cocoon of maternal protection” and plunged headlong into an unfamiliar masculine world (126). This second birth or “entry into society” takes place in the fourth or fifth year in a child’s life for which he is totally unprepared for. The abruptness of the separation from the mother and the virtual reversal of everything that is expected of him, according to Kakar, may lead to traumatic developmental consequences. This transition is then for him one which involves extreme bewilderment, up rootedness and misunderstanding. His narcissistic vulnerability to be protected and adored, soon seeks reinforcement by trying to identify with the father.  Kakar’s views aptly account for the traumatic existence of Anita Nair’s protagonist, Mukundan Nair who longs to be a better man. As Kakar evaluates:

In the childhood setting of the Indian extended family, the boy’s ensuing feelings of helpless rage and anxiety, unmitigated by the active presence of a helpful father, represent the prototypal narcissistic injury, one that requires militant psychological effort to repair.


The ambivalence of the mother-son bond further intensifies the need for the father’s touch, “the necessity of oedipal alliance often outweighing the hostility of Oedipal complex” (Kakar131). Instead of offering him emotional access, the father withdraws into “a plane of aloof perfection or preoccupied authority “thus leaving the son bewildered and disappointed when his perceives that his father can never be an ally in his boyish struggle to cope with his new-life circumstances. These traits are predominantly evident in the case of Mukundan. He sees his father for the first time on his return from Burma when he was four years old. At the very first sight of the father, the boy cuddles close his mother thereby setting the tone of their relationship. In the case of Achuthan Nair, he is not only the “aloof” father but the epitome of tyranny. The corporal punishments and abuses showered on him as a child leaves painful memories like scars on the mind of young Mukundan which he carries with him even as a fifty-eight year old man. In such a situation, the boy may turn to other men for models. For Mukundan, the caretaker of the tharvad becomes the ‘surrogate father’, friend and confidant of his childhood. Even later in life it is the caretakerwho boosts his low spirits and consoles the remorseful Mukundan for not rescuing his mother from his domineering father.

Throughout his life we find Mukundan striving to earn his father’s respect and approval: “He was always trying to measure up; trying to please” (79). He brings him gifts on every visit but Achuthan Nair fails to reciprocate his love and accepts them as “a god accepting homage to his greatness.” Mukundan loathes the village community that had let an upstart usurp the position of the most honourable and influential man in the village. His childish longing for approval is obvious and it becomes the obsession that fetters his life.  When he is made a member of the Community hall committee–“a chance to be at the helm of village affairs” – Mukundan feels his greatest desire of taking his father’s place come true (322). He wonders how his father could still claim respect and acceptability among the people of Kaikurussi. After his demise, Mukundan’s bitterness spills over: “‘He was the worst father anyone could have had’” (342). Now realisation dawns on him that he was no better than his father. He feels that the community hall would be a grim reminder of the weakling that he was as it entombed his failure as a friend, lover and eventually as a man. The unfinished community hall he plans to put to blaze was the image of his own greed “for recognition and acceptance, importance and adulation” (349). He realises that he had sacrificed his integrity and left unheeded the whispers of his conscience. The words of his lover reverberates in the recesses of his mind: “You are a coward.  A smug and completely self-absorbed coward who puts himself before anyone else and then uses his own feebleness of character to excuse it. . . . You disgust me”(323). Mukundan finally makes the choice between individual and society having been convinced that the individual’s conscience, free from the ugly craving for recognition and power is the chosen path to become a better man.

The present study has made an attempt to look at the extent and form of subordination conditioned by the social and cultural environment in which the protagonist has been placed. The trauma of having to negotiate between one’s fractured inner self as well as the need to camouflage the non-existence of such a self becomes appallingly apparent.It heralds the birth of a new being or the rising of a better man from the remains of his cloistered self.

References :

Geetha, V.  Patriarchy. STREE, 2007.

Gough, Kathleen. “Nayar: Central Kerala.”  Matrilineal Kinship. Ed. Kathleen Gough, and David Schneider.  U of California Press, 1961pp. 298-404.

Kakar, Sudhir.  The Inner World: A Psycho-analytic Study of Childhood and Society in India. 2nd ed. OUP, 1982.

Nair, Anita   The Better Man. Penguin, 1999.

About Drishti: the Sight

Drishti:the Sight is a National refereed Bi-annual Research Journal in the disciplines of Arts and Humanities founded in the year 2012 publishing articles in the subjects of English Literature, Assamese Literature, Folklore, Culture.The journal has been enlisted in the UGC-CARE list (Sr.No. 42) in Arts and Humanities section.The journal is dedicated to the cause of young upcoming scholars of the nation.The journal publishes only authentic research articles. It tries to follow the research ethics to the core.