A critique of Bengali writer Subdahara Sengupta’s 1992 short story “The Fourth Daughter” requires an examination and indictment of Indian and Hindu cultures with respect to the treatment of females, especially female children. With India in the news often these days because of highly-publicized cases of gang rapes of young women, one of whom subsequently died from her injuries, and increased scrutiny of the role gender discrimination has played in facilitating the evolution of a culture in which such crimes would occur, Sengupta’s story of the rejection by her parents of the fourth daughter born to a materially-comfortable family holds special resonance. In addition to the gender element of this story of the ironic evolution of an Indian family, there is a racial element as well.
“The Fourth Daughter” tells the story of a baby rejected by her parents because her existence brings no value to the family. In a culture in which males are more highly valued, the arrival of yet another daughter is no cause for celebration. “Mini” is the fourth daughter of Radha and her husband. Radha, a fair-skinned and beautiful woman, disdains Mini not just for her gender – who needs another daughter when a son would provide for a more profitable future – but for her dark-skinned complexion, which represents her father’s lineage more than that of her mother. Rejected by her parents, Mini is raised instead by the family’s maid, her husband-driver, and their son, who provide the loving, caring environment that should have been the provenance of Mini’s well-to-do parents. It is the maid, Parvati, who feeds, clothes and sees to the girl’s education.
The end of “The Fourth Daughter” provides the story its supreme irony. The rejected daughter grows up to be a doctor – over the objections of her biological parents, who argued that Mini’s future should entail training for the responsibilities of wife and motherhood – while the much valued son grows up to be a degenerate gambler, drinker and womanizer incapable of and unwilling to care for their aging parents. It is Mini who assumes the responsibility of caring for her parents – the role traditionally expected of the male offspring.
Subhadra Sengupta is the prolific author of children’s books reflecting the Bengali, Indian and Hindu cultures. Her story of the rejected daughter growing up to assume the responsibilities of the highly-valued son is a reflection of the environment in which she herself grew up. “The Fourth Daughter” is a melancholy tale of the fate of girls in a society that prizes boys. That it has resonated so little in her native land is a testament to the resiliency of cultural traditions that value one category of human over another.