A Stench of Kerosene and Veronica

‘A Stench of Kerosene’ is a story about a young woman, Guleri (whose family live in Chamba), living with her husband, Okeke, and his family. Guleri has never borne Okeke a child, and because of this Okeke’s mother makes him re-marry. The remarriage of Okeke occurs when Guleri goes away to visit her family, for the harvest fair. When Guleri hears of Okeke’s new wife she soaks her clothes in Kerosene and kills herself. ‘Veronica’ is also about a young woman, Veronica, who lives with her family, in a small village. In her village she has a friend called Manak.

Manak leaves the village to go to the city and make a career, leaving Veronica in her village. Years later Manak returned, to find that nothing had really changed, and Veronica was married with a child. Civil war broke out and Manak and Veronica lost contact again. When they saw each other again it was for the last time, as Veronica died (like her husband and child had done already) in Manak’s arms. In every culture there are differences and similarities between them, so when you read two stories from villages that are alike in their dwellings, poverty and expectations the contrasts will be very precise.

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The two young women are from poor rural communities, one an Asian and the other an African village. The cultural traditions have formed the expectations for male and female roles which the women may or may not accept. Guleri had to live up to Manak’s mother’s expectations, and Guleri unintentionally rejected them by never bearing Manak a child. She married into a family with expectations for women to bear children to work around the house, and do what they were told to do, while men were more important. As Guleri was a woman and she never had a child, boy or girl, Manak’s mother thought this terrible.

Guleri’s actions displeased her greatly and she ‘had made a secret resolve that she would not let [Guleri go childless] beyond the eighth year’ of Manak and Guleri’s marriage. By burning her self (because Manak’s mum made Manak marry again) Guleri was following what could have once been law in her village. Wives who didn’t bear children or who only bore girls were burned, this is what Guleri did to herself. Like Guleri, Veronica had her place in the house, but in Veronica’s case it was beneath her father’s fists. Veronica had to look after her family, her mum, dad, and her siblings.

She had to work around the house powerless but dutiful towards her family. Both women felt a duty towards their families, probably due to the unconditional love that one gives to ones family, and also the feeling that their families needed them. When Guleri found that her husband didn’t need her any more she killed herself, while Veronica lived just as long as she had her family, then when her siblings left her and her parents died she had her husband and child, then when they had all gone she let herself go; ‘[She didn’t] want to live’.

As I have said, men and women were expected to do things and act in certain ways. Women were expected to be emotionally weak. In ‘A Stench of Kerosene’ at a quite tense point for Manak, when he was covering his sadness and his mother was commenting bluntly to be a man, and not croak like a woman, Manak wanted to retort “You are a women, why don’t you cry like one for a change! “. This remark proved that women aren’t expected to show emotional strength, also proving that Manak was saddened by the situation, and just being ‘obedient to his mother and to custom’.

Differentiating from Guleri, Veronica didn’t have any expectations to be emotionally strong or weak, that we know of, but she was very strong. Whenever Guleri missed her home and family she went up to a point where she could see Chamba. She would return after seeing the houses ‘twinkling in the sunlight’. She loved her home and family greatly and her heart would be ‘glowing with pride’. When missing her family greatly Guleri obviously felt that the few days she was ALLOWED to spend with her parents wasn’t enough and resented Manak’s parents for this.

The use of the word ‘allowed’ made me sympathise with Guleri as all the way through the story I could feel Guleri’s longing to go home. Also, the use of the word ‘allowed’ makes me feel that Guleri didn’t feel very welcome in Manak’s family, and that they were almost unwilling to even let Guleri go home for the fair. It also gives me the impression that Guleri is oppressed by Manak’s mother by words, unlike Veronica who is oppressed by her father’s fists. Guleri not feeling welcome with Manak’s family would explain why she longed to go home so much.

There is also a phrase that showed me that Guleri missed her family and this is ‘long awaited morning’ showing that the morning which she left Manak’s parents was always eagerly anticipated. To Guleri a few days out of a whole year to see her family isn’t long enough. Whereas Veronica was already with her family and had no reason to go anywhere else. Being ‘the eldest child a lot of responsibility for bringing up [her siblings] had fallen on her. ‘. When she thought about her family she would have thought of her responsibilities and how much her family depended on her.

It is easy to identify with Veronica’s lack of hopes and ideals that moving somewhere else wouldn’t make all her troubles go away, as she knows that she would need qualifications. The way Veronica talked about herself, and lack of qualifications, I could feel the loss she was at and the hollowness she would have felt. The understanding I have of Veronica’s age, when all the pressures to look after everything were put upon her, evoked the emotion of pity about the situation she was in .

The use of the short story genre helps us to compare these two stories more easily, as the language and use of words has been chosen carefully, so that feelings are shown without extensive explanations. Also the writers haven’t been able to go into too much depth into parts of the story which haven’t got anything in common as the writers have had to condense the information. The writers have written these stories so that we will enjoy them and the appeal of the story can only be affected by the way in which we respond to the story, the language and the images that the ideas portray.

In both stories the words have been chosen to provoke powerful images, to make us sympathise with the characters and make us realise how strongly they all felt for one another The use of certain words provoke feelings for Guleri and Veronica, and in some cases Manak and Okeke. These were feelings of sympathy and sadness. Like when Manak was pleading with Guleri, he seemed at an loss, and he didn’t know what to do. When reading the story I can tell that Manak wanted to tell Guleri the truth about why he didn’t want Guleri to go to Chamba. He even tried to tell her. He started his sentence: ‘My mother… ‘, but he never finished it.

I felt compassion for Okeke then, but when I realised that he was going to tell Guleri that his mother was going to make him re-marry, I was annoyed as he could have tried harder to tell Guleri. This is similar to the way in which Okeke felt. He blamed himself for Guleri’s death as he could have told her. Likewise with Okeke and Veronica’s final conversation; when he left for the first time, it made me realise just how helpless Veronica must have felt. Veronica’s fatalistic view on life made it clearer to me how Veronica must have felt completely dependent on her family’s need for her, and how she just waited for things to happen.

We sympathise with Okeke when Veronica dies, not jut because of the idea of someone close to him dying but through the use of language, and how vulnerable Okeke must have felt when reaching for Veronica’s hand to find it ‘cold and limp’. Additionally, when he found Veronica almost dead, to hear her then say that she wanted to die, would have made him feel powerless.

The use of the words ‘gathered [Veronica] up in [his] arms’ and ‘[Veronica] weighed no more than a ten-year-old child. made me feel that Okeke wasn’t just picking Veronica up to try and save her but he was collecting everything of hers (which was so little it would fit in his arms), and it could also weigh less than a child. Whenever Veronica and Okeke were leaving each other the writer of ‘Veronica’ used the river as a form of symbolism. It was used to show the emotion of the situation even when Veronica’s strength over the situation covered up her feelings. At the beginning of the story when Okeke was leaving and Okeke and Veronica were saying their goodbyes by the river ‘[Okeke] snapped a twig and threw it into the water.

It bobbed on the current and then vanished from sight. ‘. The twig represented their friendship being broken apart, and being thrown into an unknown course, which could be rough or steady. Together they watched the twig vanish from sight showing that they were separating, and like the current of the stream which the twig rode upon, it couldn’t be stopped. Okeke and Veronica were both unhappy during their farewell, despite Veronica laughing and trying to cover up her feelings. The writer needed to use something to show their sadness despite concealment of their feelings.

The writer did this by not only using the stick as a form of symbolism parallel to their lives, but also the stick bobbing down the stream was an objective correlative. Towards the end of the story the river was used again. Okeke walked down to the river, ‘he dug [Veronica] a grave and buried her and afterwards [he] watched the flow of the stream until it was time for [him] to go away for the last time. ‘. It showed their friendship moving away on the flow of the stream, the continual flow of the river showed that after all that had happened time goes on. The river that saw their friendship move apart twice would still flow on.

Contrarily to Okeke’s life going on and time continuing, Manak’s life ended the moment he found out that Guleri was dead. Manak would stare, his face uncomprehending and expressionless. The moment Manak learned of Guleri’s suicide by fire, his own life proceeded to burn out. Despite not dying, Manak followed a similar fate, which not even the love of another family member, or baby of his own could save him. The moment Manak’s child was placed in his arms, he thought of Guleri, ‘”Take [my baby away]! “[Manak] shrieked hysterically, “take him away! He stinks of kerosene. “‘ .

It was the fact that Guleri didn’t bear a child that indirectly killed her. The horror that filled his eyes and his hysterics that followed when he saw his child, are because, not bearing a child caused actions which provoked Guleri to want to kill herself. Then she killed herself using kerosene. These two things result in the baby metaphorically smelling of kerosene. Although Guleri was expected by Manak’s family to be a wife, become a mother and be adult, Guleri was still childish. She was happy, counting the days till the fair ‘She did not have to express her excitement in words; the look on her face was enough. ‘.

After waiting a whole year for the fair she was asked not to go, her childish ways showed through again, as she refused to do as Manak asked. She demanded to know why he wanted to stop her, then when he pleaded with her she reacted ‘childishly stubborn’. Her refusal resulted in her own unhappiness, like, in some ways, Veronica. Veronica’s refusal to do as asked resulted in her own unhappiness as well, but Veronica was less unhappy, more discontented. Staying in her home village when she could have gone away left her feeling alone, and missing her friend Okeke. She was left with her father to beat her, and all her daily chores to do alone.

All she lived for was her family. She had no dreams, no-one else to visit, everything (and everyone) she knew was where she was. When Veronica had a chance to leave her village she just said ‘the city is not for me’ so she stayed in her village, poor, with ‘no qualifications, not even standard six. ‘, only her family. When her parents died and her siblings left her she was left unhappy, but not bitter. The conversation she had with Okeke when he came back for the first time gave me the impression that Veronica had mixed emotions, her usage of words like ‘”I’m still here as you left me”‘, ‘”What am I to tell you? ‘ and ‘”[her brothers and sisters] are gone all of them”‘ made me initially think that she did blame Okeke and her family but then when the narrator said ‘she spoke without bitterness’, it made me realise that she didn’t blame him, or her family, and that she understood that they all had their own lives to lead. Later in the story, when her husband and child died, she was unable to live to the next day and she didn’t want to, saying ‘”[She] wont live to see tomorrow. Nor [did she] want to”‘. Both of the villages had a sense of community and tradition.

The characters all seemed to know quite a lot of the people in their village. Chamba had its superstitions, like the bluebell wood where “‘[It was] said that anyone who goes through it becomes deaf. ‘”. It also had the fair where all the people from the village and some of the villages around it got together to celebrate the harvest, as tradition. The use of monotonous words like ‘every year’, ‘always’ and ‘once again’, highlight the traditional element of the community showing that without fail, everything happens as expected.

At the fair and the celebrations around the fair it was a time for friends and family to reunite, a time for ‘talking about their joys and sorrows’, (if they had moved to different villages) and for people to make new friends. The fair was a tradition celebrating the harvest every year. The community feeling would have been quite strong at all times, but around the time of the fair it would have been even stronger. When Guleri killed herself, at the time when the sense of community was so strong, everyone in the village would have known about it. The villagers would have all got together and mourned the death.

When Bhavani took it upon himself to tell Manak of Guleri’s death, this showed the involvement of everyone. The explanation of Bhavani when he informed Manak of Guleri’s death helped me to understand the extent of the sadness. Bhavani’s ‘face was sad and grey as a cinder’. Grey is a colour associated with sadness, but no-one’s face can really be grey, unless in reference to someone’s face looking pale, which it is likely Bhavani’s face was, because of the shock. Also the use of the word ‘cinder’ brought back the knowledge of Guleri’s suicide by burning, she would have been left in cinders.

For all this sadness to show on Bhavani’s face showed the idea of community again. Even people not from Chamba, like Bhavani, felt the sadness and shock. Similarly in Veronica’s village there was a feeling of community. She knew Okeke through the fact that they lived near one another. Her father had his drinking companions which he would have met in the community. Unlike in ‘A Stench of Kerosene’, the members of the village kept themselves to themselves and didn’t get involved in other people’s business.

Okeke’s father was unwilling to involve himself in Veronica’s family business when her father was beating her. Okeke wanted to help but ‘[he cursed himself] for [his] own physical inadequacy’. Within their story Manak and Okeke played an important role in the life of their women. Both men did as their families told them to do, affecting their friend/wife’s lives greatly. It wasn’t just the refusal of the women to do as they were asked that resulted in their unhappiness, but the men’s choice to do as their family told them to do. Manak married another women while Guleri was away.

He knew that he could have done more to stop Guleri going away, but he didn’t. The only person who was pleased with the situation of Manak’s second marriage was Manak’s mother. She ‘encouraged her daughter in-law to bear with her husband’s moods’. Manak’s second wife didn’t feel close to him. She complained, saying ‘”[she was] not his wife, [she was] just someone he happened to marry”‘. Manak wasn’t pleased with the situation. He obviously felt obliged to do as his mother told him to do, but he also felt guilt for not doing more to save Guleri. Manak felt the pain of Guleri’s death greatly.

When he heard of her death he was ‘mute with pain’; he felt his life go. Then as his day to day activities went back to normal his mental state didn’t, ‘he was like a dead man, his face blank, his eyes empty’. Just as though Manak had died with Guleri, or at least that he felt he should he should have died, since he was partly to blame. In a way when I said Veronica was fatalistic, Manak is also. He let Guleri go away to her family, without telling her the truth. In contrast Veronica stayed in her village and Okeke went away, Veronica had nothing better to move to.

She knew that and so did Okeke. He knew that had he tried harder to make Veronica come with him to the city it wouldn’t have changed Veronica’s mind, her only place was where she was. Before Veronica died she spoke to Okeke telling him that what she had was plenty and she didn’t need any more, then turning to Okeke and saying ‘”God has blessed us with a son. Is that not enough? “‘. Speaking in such a way that if Okeke had had any doubts as to whether he could have changed anything, she made it clear he couldn’t have affected her decisions in any way.

When comparing Okeke and Manak’s grief we can see clearly that Manak blamed himself for Guleri’s death. Everything reminded him of Guleri and the stench of Kerosene (his own child smelling of Kerosene) , thinking he could have done more to save her, whereas Okeke was only sad to see his childhood friend die in his arms crying for the ‘terrible waste. ‘. The writer of ‘A Stench of Kerosene’ is aware of time, but the way she has written about it is very vague, especially surrounding Guleri.

When Autumn breezes cleared the skies of monsoon clouds’, this was the first thing I noticed about time, clouds pass like time, sometimes slowly and at other times quickly, but when the clouds are being carried on a breeze it is a very slow process. The time surrounding Guleri is her awareness of the time, it is going by slowly as she is looking forward to the fair and seeing her family. This was also the first time in the story that I noticed Guleri’s childish outlook. When a child is looking forward to something, it takes ages to get there.

From an outside perspective of the whole story I regard Guleri’s time as going by very quickly, as I know she has a very short amount of time left to live. The length of time between events in the story isn’t very clear, for example, from the time when Guleri left Manak to go to Chamba and Manak remarried seemed like a long time, when it was actually just a couple of days. In contrast the writer of Veronica hasn’t made the idea of time seem very important, but as the time passed by we were told about it. Right at the start we were told ‘When I was twelve’ by the narrator introducing us to their age.

I then thought of how life should be for a twelve year old, and Veronica’s childhood having been taken away from her. Then later to show us how much time had passed since they had seen each other, the narrator said ‘It was ten years before I returned’. I think we just need to understand where in their lives we are reading, and the actual time surrounding the people isn’t particularly important. The relationship between the unimportance of time and Veronica’s lack of knowledge of time I think is important. Veronica would have only understood the years as they passed. Her death would have been a time that she understood.

Manak’s hysterical shrieks made me wonder whether Manak and Guleri’s life would have been fine if Guleri hadn’t gone to the fair, as neither of them were happy with the situations that resulted from Guleri going to Chamba. I don’t think they would have been happy. I think Guleri would have ended up like Veronica. Guleri would have missed her family greatly, and if she continued to not bear Manak a child she would never have been able to leave him. As Guleri’s longing to see her family grew larger, she would have lost the will to live and let herself go, and her childish fire would have burnt out.

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