Study Guide

Homeless Bird Gender

By Gloria Whelan

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"It will be of no use to you after you are married. The money for books and school fees is better put toward your dowry, so that we may find you a suitable husband." (1.5)

From a very young age Koly is taught that school is for boys, housework is for girls. It's worth mentioning that she wants to go to school like her brothers but is told it would be better for her to learn "women's" tasks like cooking, cleaning, and laundry.

When a girl learns to read, her hair falls out, her eyes cross, and no man will look at her. (1.8)

This common belief about what happens to girls when they read says a lot. They are supposedly physically disfigured by this mental change, and become no longer desirable. Importantly, we don't see anything about the negative effects reading has on boys.

"What do you mean no learning?" Maa asked in a cross voice. "You can cook and keep a house, and you embroider as well as I do. Should a wife sit with a book and let the work go?" (1.31)

Maa is shocked when Koly blurts out that she doesn't have learning. After all, Maa taught her how to embroider like nobody's business and make dinner every night; that's all an education a girl needs. Perhaps if Koly were a boy, she could learn to read. But she isn't.

The women were on one side of the courtyard and the men on the other. The guests seemed interested only in the food. […] The men ate first, and when it was the women's turn, the coconut cakes were all gone. I thought it very unfair that a bride should not have a coconut cake on the day of her own wedding. (1.69)

Notice how men and women are separated at the wedding, and the guys get to snack on the grub first. That's a metaphor for thinking about the gender roles in the text. Men get the first of anything they want in life, and women get their pick of the leftovers.

"You have to do what I tell you because you are my wife, and besides I'm not well." (2.11)

It turns out Hari ascribes to some pretty traditional gender roles, bossing Koly around and telling her that she has to obey him because he's the man. Even though Koly bites her tongue, she figures out this isn't true at all. She can do whatever she wants, regardless of her gender.

"What are you teaching that girl?" she cried. "It is no wonder she forgets to do her work." (4.53)

When Mrs. Mehta discovers that Koly's learning to read, she flips out. Notice that word "girl"in her question—It's as if she's trying to point out how ludicrous it is for Koly to learn to read because of her gender.

She looked frightened. "You wouldn't take the pension back, would you? If you do, I'll have no husband." (5.19)

Chandra worries what Koly will do when she learns the truth about her widow's pension. Luckily for Chandra, Koly is a bigger person than the Mehtas, so she doesn't take her money back because she realizes how confined even Chandra is. To her, there's nothing in life aside from getting a husband.

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)

After Koly tells Chandra that she's planning to run away, Chandra questions who will take care of her if Koly goes through with it. Koly knows she doesn't need a man to look after her, though; she can figure things out for herself. In many ways, she already has taken care of herself for a long time.

"Why should you not be happy with your husband and home?" he said. "I remember the boy waiting for you outside the store. Very polite boy. Full of energy. I could tell that from the way he paced back and forth. With such a husband you will never go hungry. But Koly, you must not stop your work. Does he understand that?" (11.47)

Mr. Das is disappointed when he learns that Koly is getting married, but he quickly figures out that it doesn't mean the end of her work. She's not going to be a housewife. This young woman can do what she loves and be married, no matter what society might prefer.

"The house will not always be so clean, the cooking may be a little hasty, and the whining children will sit on my lap and I'll sing to them while I work." (11.50)

Who needs a clean house anyway? Koly tells Mr. Das how she envisions her new married life and makes sure to paint a messy picture. She's not interested in keeping everything tidy, but cares more about being true to herself. It doesn't matter what anyone else thinks; at least she'll be happy.

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