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Stench of Kerosene - Amrita Pritam

The Stench of Kerosene by Amrita Pritam deals with the death of Guleri, the young wife of Manak. It's a case of suicide caused by immense mental unrest. Guleri had gone home for their harvesting festival. The arrival of the horse and her parent's servant makes her happy and that happiness remains until she disappears from the scene.

She did not have to express her excitement in words. The look on her face was enough. But her husband Manak was not very happy. "Her husband pulled at his hookah and closed his eyes. It seemed as if he either did not like the tobacco or that he cloud not bear to face his wife".

In this short story, Guleri's character shines winning the sympathy of the readers. Guleri, a cheerful girl coming from a well-to-do family and her marriage to Manak, her failure to give Manak's family a son, creates a terrific situation for her tragic end and the reader's immediate sympathy is with the heroine of the story, Guleri. She was the pleasant young girl who ended her life in an extremely tragic manner.

Guleri, pouring kerosene over her body and setting fire to herself, after hearing about her husband bringing a second wife during her absence.

"Guleri is dead" Bhavani said in a flat voice. "What? When she heard about your second marriage, she soaked her clothes in kerosene and set fire to them".

Manak getting highly saddened and worried;

"Manak, mute with pain, could only stare and feel his own life burning out".

And his second wife feeling that she was not his real wife, "I am not his wife, I'm just someone" paves way for the setting up of a tragic and complicated background, from which Manak's mother appears with the feeling that Manak would come back to normal, when the new born baby, his son is placed in his arms but to her extreme sadness Manak shouts hysterically.

"Take him away, he stinks of kerosene" Thus, reflecting the tragic image of Guleri's suicide casting a shadow of extreme unpleasantness and making the second wife and the whole family unhappy. Manak's attitude towards the proposal of his mother stands as a contrast to his own inclination ".... odedient to his mother and to custom Manak's body responded to the new woman but his heart was dead with in him" Indian Culture is such that a married woman should bring a son to the family.

If a woman fails to fulfil this role, she is not successful, in marriage and is rejected. Thus Manak's mother escapes a reasonable percentage of being getting accused for bringing a second wife for her son, Manak. Not that she hated Guleri, but Indian culture had influenced her to the extremes of believing in the gift of a son to the family.

On the other hand Guleri's parents were rich and they wanted a man from a good family, for their daughter. "But Guleri's father was prosperous and has lived in cities. He had sworn that he would not take money for his daughter, but would give her to a worthy man from a good family."

Guleri, failing to give Manak's family, a son having waited for seven years and the sad end to her life, could have been sad even from the early days of her marriage. In India the 'mother' is supposed to be a representative of Indian culture.

A mother enjoys an important place, if she is able to fulfil a mother's part meeting with the expectations of motherhood; these being the customs and traditions of Indian culture.

Therefore the death of Guleri could be called "cultural violence" in Indian society, though not recognised as violence; in reality it is a violent act leading to the death of a person.

In the short story, Stench of Kersene the writer, points out in simple diction the "theme of violence" present in the culture of Indian society. Amrita Pritam gives a clear picture of the episodes with the appropriate choice of a family setting and the intended aim and view of marriage in typical Indian Society. "The family setting of the extended family".

The story of the "Stench of Kerosene" begins with the "climax fairly close" to the events in the past and giving a complete picture of the proceedings creating "a full picture of the whole tragedy" Guleri ending her life in the most tragic manner the birth of a son to Manak's second wife, Manak, refusing to take the baby saying he gets the smell of kerosene, creates a suitable background making the title "Stench of Kerosene" ideal. The strain of dramatic effect running throughout the story reveals the whole episode in a very eloquent manner.

The simple and short dialogue creating a cinematic effect and the instant change of scenes is quite effective. The symbolic use of the flute which Gulari treasured and the notes played only to be heard by her, hiding it under the dupatta before she left the house is set up in an elegant manner inviting the reader's direct attention to the happy events in Guleri's life.

Manak playing his flute as they walked or were at the fair, made Guleri believes that the music brought her joy, taking her closer to Manak's heart. Thus the flute standing as a symbol of joy in their lives.

"He looked at her sadly. Then putting the flute to his lips blew a strange and anguished wail" striking the signal for the tragedy - anticipating the tragic end. Bhavani announcing the sad end of Guleri "When she heard of your second marriage she soaked her clothes in kerosene and set fire to them" Manak getting mute with pain "He stared a long time uncomprehending, his face as usual expressionless" and his sudden scream filled with horror when his baby son was given to his hands. "Take him away, he shrieks hysterically.

Take him away he stinks of kerosene." The repetition of the words "Take him away" emphasises his indifferent attitude, his extreme dejection. The story in brief is not that of Manak's wife's tragic death, alone but it also touches upon the arrival of another woman to Manak's house and becoming an occupant.

Kerosene being inflammable, odorous and dangerous fuel symbolises the intense sorrow and disaster caused to Guleri, as a result of Manak's 'family conceptions'.

The flute with its melodious notes and Guleri's extreme desire to listen to it when played by her husband.

The music of the flute associating with joy and stench of Kerosene associating with the tragic death of Guleri emphasising the contrasting events in the "married life" of Manak and Guleri; due to the contrasting features of Indian culture and the basic rights of man and woman marriage creating an extremely unpleasant and tragic atmosphere.

"The days went by Manak resumed his work in the fields and ate his meals when they were given to him. But he was like a dead man; his face blank; his eyes empty."

Mrs. C. Ekanayake, Retd. Specialist Teacher Eng. Lit., St. Annes' College, Kurunegala.

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