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What are the key themes in Bhabendra Nath Saika's The Hour Before Dawn?

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The key themes in Bhabendra Nath Saika's The Hour Before Dawn include patriarchy, women's agency, and the challenging bonds of family within Indian society. The protagonist, Menoka, grapples with her identity and role after her husband takes a younger second wife, leading her to question her subjugation and seek fulfillment outside her marriage, signaling a metaphorical awakening or "dawn" in her life.

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Bhabendra Nath Saika's novel The Hour Before Dawn centers on an Assamese woman, Menoka, whose husband unexpectedly takes a much younger second wife. She is shocked by this development and feels it is a slap in the face after her years of loyalty and devotion to her husband, Mohikanto.

She begins to question her own identity, agency, and role within her marriage. The pressures of her subservience to her husband—completely legally and socially subjugated to him—are thrown into sharp relief by the realization that he can take another, younger wife at will. In response to this, Menoka pursues an affair with a local outcast and philanderer named Modon and eventually has his child. While Mohikanto suspects that the child isn't his, he can't accuse Menoka of infidelity without hard evidence, so the family continues to live as normal.

The novel explores themes of patriarchy, agency for women and mothers within Indian society, and the challenging bonds of family as experienced through gendered constraints. The English-language title—different from the Assamese title, which more literally translates to A Cape—helps spotlight Menoka's struggle. She is experiencing her life just before a metaphorical "dawn" when she awakens to her true feelings about her marriage and her need for fulfillment beyond what her husband offers. She is also on the cusp of a new era of her life; she will begrudgingly come to care for Kiron and her children even as Kiron struggles with her own mental health. Menoka's older son by Mohikanto, Indro, grows up to study in Calcutta and depart from his immediate family unit, and Menoka's inner journey can also be charted by her shifting feelings toward Indro.

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