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When we first meet Koly she's thirteen years old and, like so many people her age, has her whole life ahead of her. To this end, she daydreams about her future and the endless possibilities and joy it will bring. She's excited, a young teen on the brink of coming into her own and totally looking forward to it. But not for long…
It only takes one arranged marriage to ruin Koly's prospects for herself. As soon as she joins the Mehta family, she realizes her life won't be what she thought it was going to be. For one thing, her dashing husband is actually a bed-ridden and deathly-ill boy. Rough surprise, right? Plus, despite his weakness, Hari (her hubby) bosses her around. But nobody puts Koly in a corner—at least not in her head. So check out her mental response to his bossy ways:
I wanted to tell him that he was only my age and in bed besides. I did not see how he could make me do something unless I wanted to. But I was grateful to him for making his parents take me to Varanasi. Besides, I was afraid that if I answered him back, Hari would start coughing or throw something. (2.47)
Even though Koly knows the rules her society preaches about marriage and gender roles, she doesn't feel the need to adhere to them—at least not internally. Yes, she cooks and cleans like she's expected to, but she doesn't let anyone trample her spirit. She holds tight to her opinions and sense of self-worth.
Helping Koly keep up appearances is the fact that she cares a lot about her family's honor. Even though she wants to run away, time and again she sticks things out with the Mehtas, no matter how much they treat her like Cinderella (especially Mrs. Mehta). Family standing really matters within the caste system of India, and Koly doesn't want to embarrass her parents. She worries what they would think if she ran home, and knows it wouldn't be good, so she puts their well-being before her own desires for freedom.
Ultimately, Koly strikes an impressive balance. She might dream about cutting lose, but she sticks out the tough times because of what doing so means for her family—and yet she also manages not to lose sight of herself in the process, staying true to herself despite being beaten down by life. This takes resilience and dedication, and is only more impressive because she's a young woman in a society that doesn't value young women much.
Once Hari dies—which doesn't take long, mind you—this whole stick-it-out-with-the-Mahtas schtick gets a little harder for Koly. She can't go back to her family because they can't afford to take care of her and no one in her village will marry a widow, so she's stuck with the Mahtas while Mrs. Mahta's resentment toward Koly grows.
Koly isn't a wilting flower, though, so she starts to plan her eventual escape. When she confides in her sister-in-law Chandra that she plans to run away one day and make her own way in the world, though, Chandra doesn't get it. This is an important moment of contrast: Chandra is content with her lot and being married off for the well-being of her family, but Koly—who's worked herself to the bone to earn her keep over the years—has a hard time being passive about her future. She tells us:
I knew that Chandra was never one to think of taking care of herself, so I said no more. Still, seeing how happy she was, I began to think more often of whether one day I might be happy as well. (7.7)
Significantly, here we see an example of how Koly never gives up hope. Does she want her life to look like Chandra's? Nope—but only not in the specific details. When it comes to realizing a happier life for herself, Koly totally dares to dream. And she doesn't stop there. Koly does what she can to make her dreams come true. She learns how to read, makes her way in the city once Mrs. Mehta ditches her, and taps into her incredible talent for embroidery, enabling herself to support herself financially and live on her own. You go, girl.
Koly is rewarded for keeping her chin up and her nose to the grindstone when she gets one heckofa happy ending. Not only does she find the man of her dreams (who is neither bed-ridden or sick, by the way), she also stays true to herself. She refuses to give up her independence or her embroidery skills for any man, and she knows she's found the right one when Raji doesn't ask her to. In fact, he even builds a special embroidery room where she can do what she loves, which is of utmost importance to her:
The workroom and the women in it had become a part of me. All the while I stitched, I thought of how lucky I had been to find Raji, and how without him my life would have been very different. (11.65)
By the end, we can see how much Koly has grown. She's not daydreaming about a wedding and how perfect her life will be anymore—she knows life isn't really like that. Instead she figures out how to make herself happy, and refuses to compromise. When Raji proposes, she really thinks about his offer and what she needs in life for it be satisfying. Whereas she romanticizes marriage in the beginning, in the end, it's something she can do without if it means giving up her passion and happiness. And since Raji gets this, well, Koly is one young woman who has it all.