Themes that go unnoticed

Aishwarya Ramesh     

From the many hours and years that I have spent with books of different genres, I have observed that there are many similarities among them. These similarities have gone unnoticed or have not been written about because they are subtle and often other information vies for our attention. The most frequently dealt with themes in books are love, death and relationships. I though would like to focus on the inconspicuous ones, the themes that get overshadowed by the popular and recurrent themes mentioned above.  

I shall attempt to discuss the inconspicuous themes with reference to the following books:

1 The Other Side of Silence by Urvashi Butalia

2. The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck

3. Sita: An Illustrated Retelling of the Ramayana by Devdutt Pattanaik.

4. Quiet by Susan Cain

These books belong to different genres and will help me show you how similar books can be even if they belong to completely different genres.

Quiet illustrates the power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking. It has anecdotes of introverts from all walks of life.

The Other Side of Silence is a book depicting the voices of the victims of the partition of India.

The Good Earth is a classic, set in a Chinese village in the early 20th century.

Sita is set in 5th century BCE India and is mythology. 

Though, there is presence of diversity in terms of place of origin, genre and nationality of the authors, the books are more alike than we think. The themes in these books are as follows:

1.  Revelations experienced by the characters or authors:

 Revelations in the lives of the characters (in the case of fiction) and authors (in the case of non-fiction) often form the crux of literary works.

Examples from each of the books:

a. The Other Side of Silence

In this book, the author says that she was raised in a secular household with its inhabitants carrying traumatizing stories about the Partition of India. Her parents had settled in India and the tales of the hard times were fed into the younger generation’s ears. The author grew up listening to these tales with skepticism. As she puts it, “We (she and her siblings) were middle-class Indians who had grown up in a period of relative calm and prosperity…when tolerance and secularism seemed to be winning the argument. These stories – of loot, arson, rape, murder- came out of a different time. They meant little to us.” However, the anti-Sikh riots in 1984 after the assassination of the former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi made her understand that reality was very different from her perception. Thus, the novel came into existence with a painful but powerful revelation that brilliantly narrates the violence of Partition and policies that created the scenario.

b. Quiet

This novel also comes into being because of a revelation that the author experienced. By choosing to become a lawyer, Susan Cain who identifies herself as an introvert, finds herself having to display all the skills of an extrovert. Once, her nerves get the better of her and she embarrasses herself in front of her colleagues and clients. This leads to an epiphany that introverts are being sidelined and extroverts, rewarded. That is when she decides to write a book and send a loud message to the world that introverts are powerful and necessary.

c. Sita

In fictional books, the revelations experienced by the characters tend to steer the story. While every character goes through revelations in this book, it is the author’s revelation that female characters are not being portrayed strongly that leads him to write this novel focusing on Sita. Of all the characters in the book, I would like to focus on Ram’s revelation. Ram believes in upholding rules no matter the circumstances, for he strongly believes that rules make societies what they are. It is to uphold rules that he goes into exile for no fault of his, he banishes his wife from the kingdom for the very same reason. Indeed it was this revelation that led to the story of the Ramayana.

d. Good Earth

The example from this book is quite different from the others that I have mentioned. In Good Earth, the author very intelligently uses revelations as a tool to change scenes and create twists in the plot. Though there are many examples in this book; I have chosen Wang-Lung, the protagonist’s revelation. His revelation forms the crux of the novel. After acquiring wealth, he (Wang-Lung) creates an atmosphere of distrust and deception. He now opens his eyes to the suffering he has caused to the woman who made it possible for him to reach his current position. This is followed by the falling action of the novel.

2. Acceptance of reality:

a. The Other Side of Silence

As mentioned earlier, this book contains memoirs of the victims of Partition. Every anecdote presents a contrasting reality to the reader. However, every story has a startling quality; all its narrators have accepted the reality around them. Even when forced to leave their homes, country and families, they do so accepting the fate enforced on them.

b. Quiet

Quiet contains inspiring stories of introverts. Some of them are stories of notable personalities like Steve Jobs, Rosa Parks and Mahatma Gandhi. All these people accepted their shyness in social situations and were aware that the world would judge them for it. This acceptance gave them the strength to face the world and change it.

c. Sita

The greatest example of this theme is, of course, from the book Sita. Here, she accepts the judgment of the people and her husband; not because she was forced to or was vulnerable, rather with the understanding that sorrow comes only when we don’t accept reality.

d. The Good Earth

This theme can be seen in Good Earth too. Interestingly, all the characters are not depicted with this temperament. However, the character of O-Lan is portrayed so. Her behaviour and attitude steers the family through troubled times. 

3. Social norms and values:

a. The Other Side of Silence

The partition of India occurred due to a series of political movements. The decision, though taken to reduce religious disparities, only increased tensions. All the anecdotes in the book reflect the social norms and values that were challenged at the time of Partition. In fact, social norms and values regarding religion were constantly in controversy because nobody stayed true to the fundamental principles of their religion.

b. Quiet

The entire book is filled with examples of social norms that we attribute to introverts and extroverts. Moreover, it is the reason the book came into being, to challenge pre-conceived notions about introversion.

c. Sita

Though the book is set in ancient India, it brings out some social norms like chastity, promises and reputation, which, in one form or another, continue to be relevant in today’s society as well. Ram giving importance to rules, Sita’s exile from Ayodhya and the events that shape the society and story are all because of the importance given to norms.

d. The Good Earth

Like in the other books I have mentioned, there was a lot of significance given to customs. In Chinese tradition, small feet are considered beautiful and hence women used to keep their feet bound all the time to shrink their size. This specific norm has been highlighted in the novel. 

4. Power of narration:

For this theme, I don’t want to emulate examples from books. Every book contains narration; hence, I would like to focus on the over-arching effect of narration. Stories, either fictional or real, connect readers to the character or person because it adds depth to their personality. They help us view situations through the other’s eyes and help justify their role in a book. Stories depict the life around us and can be viewed as a tool to understand the world. As the saying goes, a reader lives a thousand lives before he/she dies.

Themes in literature are subtle but noticeable, unique yet repetitive and broad but certainly beautiful. Sometimes, we as readers miss out on many themes as they are often hidden by layers of imagination or information. If we read between the lines and beyond the texts, we will surely notice them. Hopefully, this article will inspire you to look for the hidden (yet explicit) themes in books.

The author is a class 12 student of Delhi Public School, Coimbatore. An avid reader with a deep love for nature, she intends to create sustainable lifestyles and promote zero waste living in the near and foreseeable future. She can be reached at [email protected].

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