Monday, April 20, 2020

Gopinath Mohanty's Immortal Indians


Is there another Indian novelist whose books contain, not just so many beautiful sentences, but so many different kinds of beautiful sentences, as those of Gopinath Mohanty (1914-1991)? No Indian novelist is as consistently and meaningfully melodious as him, and with no one else’s material does the reader feel such a strong sense – very hard to achieve in novelistic prose – of the concentration and economy of music. Most thrillingly, when one reads Mohanty’s great novels of tribal life in Odisha, one realizes that the notes he summons derive not just not from his own feeling nature, but from his material: the pleasure and danger of the forest, the proximity and capriciousness of the gods, and the elemental beat and spark of the life-force itself.

Thankfully, the impact of Mohanty’s stylistic dexterity and felicity in Odia shine through even in translation – or have been made to do so by some very painstaking and adept translators. Amrutara Santana, published by Sahitya Akademi in a translation by the Odia scholars and professors of English literature, (the late) Bidhubhusan Das and Prabhat Nalini Das, as The Dynasty of the Immortals, is one of two great novels about Odia tribal life written by Mohanty in his youth. The other is Paraja, which appeared almost thirty years ago in an excellent translation by Bikram Das.

Mohanty’s engagement with the tribals of Odisha began fairly early in life. As a young bureaucrat enlisted in the Odisha Administrative Service in the years just before independence, he lived in distant outposts in the district of Koraput, then, as now, one of India’s poorest regions. But when the young city boy with an MA in English Literature came into contact with people whom those of the social order to which he belonged thought of as primitive, simple-minded hillmen, he found in them a beauty and integrity, a generosity of spirit and a animistic empathy, a love of song and story that cried out to be enshrined in words.

But the tribals were also the “other” of mainstream Indian civilization, relentlessly patronised and exploited, destined to be on the wrong side of history even when India rid itself of its colonial masters. (“The Kandha,” Mohanty writes presciently, “is to be found wherever the forest is. However, once the forest is opened up, the Kandha is evicted from his land.”) Like his contemporary Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay in Bengal with his forest novel Aranyak, Mohanty set out to describe both the rapture and the tragedy of this other way of life. But unlike Bandyopadhyay, he chose to do so from the point of view of the forest-dwellers themselves.

Readers of Paraja, about the tribe by that name, will immediately recognise the feel and force of the limber, capacious, almost centreless point of view in Dynasty of Immortals, about a group of Kandha tribals in a group of isolated, impoverished villages (“Here, humankind did not get anything from nature without a struggle”) in the Eastern Ghats. The narration ricochets continuously from the intimate and the domestic to the wide-angle and the cosmic, from the narrator’s almost ethnographic observations about the Kandhas to a tracking of the minds of diverse characters that unspools for us the same worldview from the inside. Mohanty’s translators find short and long, shapely and broken, sentences that capture the many shades of light and dark, the many intricate subtleties, that he conjures up.

Mohanty’s distinctive narrative method adds to the feeling of extreme intensity and compression: in tightly sculpted and focussed chapters no more than five or six pages long, written almost as short stories, we are hit by wave after wave of powerful feeling. But the jolt in this case is not just aesthetic, but – in Mohanty’s time and in our own – political. Mohanty’s ecstatic style is an instrument precisely designed to reveal the beauties of the way of life of his forest-dwelling protagonists.

Out here in the forest, distinctions between the human and the animal realm, the world of human artifacts and that of nature, the living and the dead, seem to be much more blurred than in modern industrial society. We sense this right from in the opening chapters of Dynasty, when the man who appears to be the protagonist of the story, the elderly village headman Sarabu Saonta, collapses and dies; nevertheless, his presence echoes across the 600 pages that follow. “Sarabu Saonta loved this earth,” we read. “He did not know how to love with discrimination. Life was truth, beauty; let the old body be destroyed, he would be reborn in this beautiful land.”

After Sarabu dies, his son Diudu, daughter Pubuli, and daughter-in-law Puyu are left to carry on all the rituals and reveries of their realm: the forbidding and enchanting forest, with its light and shade, cooing birds and hungry tigers.  In one scene, reminiscent of the story of the killing of the male krauncha bird and the grieving sounds of its mate that inspired Valmiki to invent the shloka meter of the Ramayana, Diudu kills a bird on a hunt and, reaching it as it lies thrashing on the ground, thinks he sees a cloud rising in the pupils of its eyes as it expires—an astonishing image. There are other thrilling hunting scenes, in which the contrasting energies of human social dynamics and violence towards beasts are mingled as expertly as Leo Tolstoy did in Anna Karenina (Mohanty was a voracious and cosmopolitan reader and even translated War And Peace into Odia).  

In choosing characters who approach the business of living with such rapture and intensity, Mohanty reminds one of other twentieth-century artists and philosophers who, in an ideological age, have resisted the reduction of life to any system – people like the French film-maker Jacques Becker, who declared, “In my work I don’t want to prove anything except that life is stronger than everything else”, or the Iranian philosopher Ramin Jahanbegloo, who after being incarcerated in prison comes to the paradoxical realization that “the meaning of life is life itself.”

The forest is the realm not just of food-gathering, of the hunt, but also of love, the place where human beings succumb to “the instinct of eternal nature”. It is the place, in other words – and this is where Mohanty’s focus on a very particular social world at a particular historical moment acquires a universal resonance – where man and woman become Man and Woman, carrying on the eternal dance of life and creation.

Repeatedly in Mohanty’s novels, we are given this sense of what one might call deep time, the sense of an archetype playing itself out repeatedly across the centuries. The young people falling in love for the first time thrill to this new emotion; the storyteller, meanwhile, thrills to the sense of the very same figures becoming indistinct, bringing the past to life within the folds of the present. “Then the dialogue of Kandha courtship through question and answer ensued, the exchange of words from time immemorial; thousands of years had rolled by in the formulation of such exchanges.” For his characters the link to the past is not a matter of the historical record but rather an imaginative one rooted in a feeling for nature and the cosmos; it is in this sense that the tribals with their short life-spans and many hardships are nonetheless “the dynasty of the immortals”.

In 1953, a letter of complaint arrived at the office of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, sent to him by the land-owners and moneylenders who comprised the elite of Koraput. The letter said (I take this from an essay about Mohanty written by the critic JM Mohanty) – “To our great calamity and disaster Sri Gopinath Mohanty is posted here as the special assistant agent at Rayagada. He is always fond of hillmen and behaves like hillmen himself. He very little respects other classes of people before them. He behaves as if only born for Adivasis."

Perhaps the letter had an unintended effect. When the Sahitya Akademi was founded in 1954 to award literary achievement in the 24 major languages of India, Amrutara Santana was judged the first-ever winner of the Sahitya Akademi Award for Odia literature. It has taken sixty years to produce a worthy translation in English (marred, sadly, by the terrible layout and copy-editing that has unfortunately come to be the general standard for Akademi publications). The wait, though, has not been in vain. Mohanty’s ecstatic vision, shot through with light and dark, sings here on every page. In time, the world will grant that this contemporary of Garcia Marquez and Vasily Grossman had a vision of life no less original and enduring than them. But for now, let at least us Indian readers ignore no more this marvellous hillman standing at our very own doorstep.  

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Conjugal and Fictional Possibility in Perumal Murugan's Kali-Ponna trilogy


One reason why we gravitate to fiction is for the pleasure of entering imaginatively into a highly worked-up moral field that is not our own and often very different from it. In fact, fiction reassures us of the plasticity of our own consciousness: after only a few pages of acquaintance, we are able to bind ourselves with the point of view of one or several characters. Even if they themselves seem trapped or bound down by a situation, a city, or their own natures, in living vicariously through them we experience the space between own imaginative life and theirs as freedom, an enlargement and deepening of our own sense of life and of our awareness of cause and effect. No reflective reader deeply stirred by a novel ever quite relinquishes the trace it leaves behind, and when those novels do not supply a neat closure we often "carry on" the lives of the characters in our own minds beyond the point at which the writer left them. Having once made the story the object of our reading life, we now make it a part of our reading of life itself. It is perhaps the greatest compliment we can pay a writer.

Ten years ago, the writer Perumal Murugan proved himself worthy of just such respect and reverberation – left us tantalized with the sense of a book having ended when the story had in a way only just begun – with his 2010 novel One Part Woman (in Tamil, Maadhurbaagan). Set in a village in western Tamil Nadu some time in the early part of the twentieth century, the book illumined in a torrent of exquisite, empathetic detail the predicament of a peasant couple, Kali and Ponnayi, deeply (and for those around them, often provokingly) in love with one another but unable after twelve years of marriage to conceive a child. 

Although Kali and Ponna are utterly rapt in one another, the norms of the world and the tongues of people around them always remind them of what is missing from their lives. The child-shaped hole in their lives is brought up in nearly every social encounter and finally in their own dealings with each other, although never to the point of breaking the bond between them. If anything, Kali is repeatedly counselled to take a second wife, but refuses to do so. Instead, he grows ever more reclusive, spending all his hours in the barnyard that lies a little distance from his home, tending his fields and his animals. Meanwhile, Ponna, compulsively scratching the wound, turns every subject to the question of children: "The plant that we plant grows; the seed that we sow blooms; is it only me who is the wasted land here?" 

When all patience and propitiation has been exhausted, one final option, if extreme, presents itself. At the popular annual chariot festival of the half-male, half-female god Ardhanareeswara – in his encompassment of both sexes into one whole, the very emblem of conjugal felicity – in the nearby town of Thiruchengode, there opens up on the final night an abandonment of all norms and the erasure of identities. Then, any man and woman may consort with one another in the dark, and children born of such encounters are held to be bestowed by the god himself. It is suggested to both Kali and Ponna by her own brother Muthu that she journey to the festival all alone to find a man on this night to be impregnated by him. It is very hard for her to contemplate this act of tawdry yet potentially liberatory adultery, but she wonders if she would do it if her husband gave his permission.

The tension between the present and the future, the individual and the couple, between sexual fidelity and the need for children, is thus strung by Murugan to the highest pitch. In the end, as the result of a misunderstanding orchestrated by Muthu for what he believes to a good cause, we see Ponna going to the festival and being seduced by a man believing her husband has discreetly consented to it, and Kali belatedly discovering what he then takes to be the greatest of all betrayals. One Part Woman ended with an image of Kali, drunk and devastated, in the very barnyard where he and his wife had spent so many happy hours, and looking up at the portia tree that he himself had planted many years ago – the most prominent motif in the book: a symbol of pleasure in the natural world, of Kali's own capacity for creation and nurture, of the passing of time, and of the slow ramification of of events. What would happen next? Would he take his own life? We could not say: people need air to live, and characters their creator.

And what was happening to the creator? It is clear Murugan himself was exhilarated by his own story in One Part Woman and unwilling to take leave of his characters. In fact, he had generated such a cloud of possibilities that in the years that followed, he came up with not one but two sequels, now ably translated by Aniruddhan Vasudevan as Trial By Silence and A Lonely Harvest. What is thrilling about this follow-up is that the books are not contiguous. Instead they audaciously take they take advantage of the freedom that fiction allows and life does not, and explore two versions of events arising from the same narrative crux: Kali and Ponna sundered by the eruption in their lives of a single night's events and their consequences. Some events are common to both sequels – in both, for instance, Ponna discovers she is pregnant – but the meanings and feelings they generate are very different because of the circumstances in which they transpire, allowing us, in effect, to choose a path on a fork on the road, then come back and take the other one.

In Trial By Silence, we see Kali where we left him, now attempting to kill himself by hanging from a noose on the portia tree. But his mother arrives just in time and saves him. Shortly afterwards Ponna arrives home from her night at the chariot festival and is shocked both by his brush with death and by her discovery that he had never given his consent. She is branded a whore by her husband, who refuses to touch her or converse with her and retreats into a private universe, stewing and suffering silently in his barnyard with his animals and becoming even more estranged when it turns out she is pregnant. Ponna herself cuts off all her ties with her own family for having plotted the destruction of her marriage. In this way an entire web of connections is broken up; the world of the family becomes a set of solitudes.

And the other book? In A Lonely Harvest, we find that Kali succeeds in killing himself; the grotesque details of his grimace at point of death and his cadaver are no less unsettling in light of the knowledge that he continues to live in another book (which experience leads to the insight that the "reality" of fiction is of a different order than that of life). Ponna is left a widow with a small farm, an aged mother-in-law, and (soon) a child in the womb. But she refuses to leave the barnyard where Kali spent all his days and in fact moves house there, seeing his presence in every small detail and especially in the portia tree. 

We are thus made spectators to two kinds of tragedy. In one, we see how lonely and riven two partners in love and domesticity may become while keeping up a kind of perfunctory life in the world together. In the other, the desire to perpetuate life results instead in the snuffing out of a life, and in the desperate efforts, pervaded by regret and yearning, of those left behind to patch together an existence that will never yield the pleasures of the past. These are exquisite formal patterns.

And they are realized in writing of great involvement and fidelity to point of view. Nowhere is Murugan's mastery of his material more evident than in his depiction of space as a reflection of human personality, and in his intricate braiding of the human and natural world. In a seemingly artless, low-key "village prose" that is nevertheless limpid and expressive, he makes us partners in the peasant's endless round of chores, showing how in his imagination the possibilities of trees and soil, birds and beast, water and stone, sun and season, are channeled into mutually supportive combinations. Raising livestock and working his fields in One Part Woman, Kali is a master of creation who is yet mocked by the world for being impotent; then in Trial By Silence, his decision to abandon his crops and cattle and let everything decay around him in his beloved barnyard becomes a metaphor for the blighting of his mind by the plague of cuckoldry; then in A Lonely Harvest, he kills himself in the very same haunt, and the control of the space passes over to the two women of his house, who in taking it over and adapting it to their own needs and capabilities discover its pleasures all over again while finding in it disturbing hints of his presence.

There is much to admire also about the equity of empathy distributed by Murugan between his male and female protagonist – sometimes expressed in very shape of the story, in the form of chapters alternating between their respective viewpoints. And, given his own starting position, his extraordinarily layered and lucent exposition of female subjectivity and agency in the characters of both Ponna and her mother-in-law Seerayi give the lie to what has regrettably become an axiom of modern gender politics and of some strands of feminist literary criticism: that male writers can never write truthful portraits of female characters because they somehow “just don’t understand”. (If the only identities we could depict truthfully were our own, there would no point in writing fiction in the first place.)

If anything, the most powerful emotional effect of the book is the sense that in their long years of mutual adoration and affectionate mockery (of which many lovely scenes fleck all three books) both Kali and Ponna have become, like Ardhanareeswara, half-man and half-woman, able to treat gender and sexual difference as a bridge to the other and not as an island.
Kali was intimately familiar with every inch of Ponna's body. He did not even know his own body that well. There was one little lash on Ponna's eyelids tht was thick and slanting away from the other eyelashes.  He sometimes held it between his lips and tugged at it. She once said to him, 'Let me know if you want to remove it.'But he replied, 'It is my most favourite piece of hair, let me tell you.'
He also liked to play with her tongue by keeping his finger on it. She would pull it in at his touch, and he would ask her to bring it out again. 'If feels soft, like touching a snail,' he said once.'See, now the snail's going into its shell!' she said, and closed her mouth. 
He loved the fine lines on her lips. He once counted them and said, 'Fourteen.'She said, 'You are crazy.' And he agreed. 'Yes, indeed I am.'

And, as an extension of the same experience of reaching out, both parties are able to marshal imagination and memory as an antidote to pain  and even as a substitute for embodied presence. “She pervaded his thoughts,” we read in One Part Woman. “She came to occupy them so much that he could tell her every movement and gesture.” And in a startling scene in A Lonely Harvest, we see Ponna going into the fields after Kali’s death and finding a brinjal patch that had been lovingly planted by him. The effect gradually metamorphoses into the cause; creation back into the creator. “Ponna caressed the bristly stem of the brinjal plant. It felt like she was caressing his arms. She held the stem against her cheek. Definitely his hand….She kept walking through the plants. How many hands did he have!”

Is this one of the essential works of Indian fiction in our century? It absolutely is.

Thursday, February 13, 2020

Basanti's Dream: Reading women in the early Indian novel

A striking feature of early Indian novels – novels published, say, between 1880 and 1910 in English, Bengali, Urdu, Odia, or Malayalam -- are their readers. By this, I don’t mean, however, readers of these novels: students, intellectuals, the educated upper class – the natural constituency that early Indian novelists sought out. That readership was almost embarrassingly small – inevitably so, because the writers were working in a form alien to the very people whom they wished to depict and sometimes provoke. And in any case there was often little for that readership to savour: the writing was earnest, clumsy and derivative of the English novel in language, form and content.

No, what is fascinating about these novels, when read at a distance of a century, is how often contain scenes of characters reading books – very often western literature, and just as often novels. Sometimes the most important thing a protagonist does to assert him- or herself in early Indian fiction is just read. This was not just an ingenious kind of self-publicity – the desire of a new and novel literary form to validate itself by representing common people engaging with it. Rather, reading is often a controversial, provocative activity in early Indian novels, as sexual experimentation and drug-taking might have been in the novels of the post-Independence generation. To show a character – especially a woman – reading was to show her thinking, reasoning, reconsidering her position in society and her relationship to patriarchal tradition, and becoming, page by page and line by line, an individual in ways newly sanctioned in the West but unfathomable or undesirable in the social world in which the early Indian novelists lived.

Reading, then, is rarely a benign detail in early Indian novels: it stands for a revolution within the spirit, and therefore potentially in society. As soon as a character is shown reading, we know that a faultline, a thread of self-consciousness and potentially of conflict and alienation, has been opened up between her and her world; they will never be joined up again in perfect comity, and even if they do then it is us, the readers, who will mourn the cost at which they have been brought back into line. Even the tawaif Umrao Jaan Ada in Mirza Hadi Ruswa’s book by the same name loves to read, slowly substituting books for men as she ages, saying of her former admirers, “When they began to drop out of my life one by one...I developed a taste for books.”

By showing their characters reading books, the early Indian novelists – almost always male, we must remember – wished to imply that these fictional (in every sense) women had the same aspirations to intellectual independence and linguistic power that they had themselves, as readers, witnessed in female characters of English novels of the day. A woman who read was a woman whom both the male hero – himself often somewhat alienated from tradition by an English education – could desire and the reader could love. She was a person who could validate the very existence of the novel itself.

This viewpoint, we see, is almost never shared by figures of authority in the novels themselves. To them, to allow a girl an education, and especially an English education, is usually seen as fatally corrupting (although it was fine for men to study English) and radical. To allow them to read novels in English was to reach the heights of libertinism. “I lately found her reading an English book,” complains the old patriarch Panchu Menon of Indulekha, the spirited 16-year-old heroine of O. Chandu Menon’s novel by the same name in 1890. “She told me the story was only a made-up thing, but...just consider the consequences, my dear Panikar, if girls are allowed to read such trash.”

Even writers who did not share the general consensus among early Indian novelists that western education is good for young Indians – for instance, Bankimchandra Chatterji – can be found populating their books with images of women reading. In Debi Chaudhurani, Bankim’s most radical vision of a martial Bengali nationalism, the humble female protagonist Prafulla, cast out of her marital home by her in-laws, becomes a bandit in the forest under the tutelage of a Sanskrit-speaking brigand who teaches to fight – and also to study the Gita. A program of reading was essential for any woman who aspired to agency in the world. Only the choice of books differed.

This stark divergence at the turn of the century between the generations on the matter of female education and learning the language of the coloniser is both made a tragic crux and finessed for comic effect by the authors of Basanti, an Odia novel first published in 1931 and just translated into English by Himansu S.Mohapatra and Paul St-Pierre. In Basanti, the disapproving matriarch Subhadra Devi – mother of the idealistic zamindar Debabrata, who seeks to marry the highly educated and capable (if socially marginal) young heroine Basanti – is appalled by her son’s choice of consort.

“Yes, it was good for daughters-in-law be well-read,” we read, following the lines of an argument still widely echoed in familial and conjugal reasoning in India nearly a century later. “They ought to be able to sing the Bhagabata and read out Kesaba Koili and Jema Dei Kanda for their mothers-in-law. But then, heavens, what was all this! Learning English, learning Bengali, reading newspapers, singing – what on earth was all this!” Basanti’s reading life is connected up to her lack of compliance with social norms for women. “The thing she disliked most about Basanti was such a grown up girl, far from speaking softly in hushed tones from beneath a foot-long veil, wore nothing on her head and her words rang out loud and clear.”

To be sure, this scene in Basanti is echoed by situations in many Indian novels of the time emphasizing a progressive view of women and encoding a critique of Indian tradition into their plotlines and narratorial ruminations. But there is still something unique about the book that should give it pride of place in any essay (such as this one) or reading list focussing on the theme of reading as a road to independence and female emancipation in the Indian novel. For what is most exciting about this ironic recapitulation of the critique of “reading girls” in Basanti is that it is not composed by an English-educated male writer with a progressive outlook (which would give such scenes a certain meaning), or even by a rebellious female writer with feminist leanings (of the kind who would arrive in Indian fiction within a generation). Rather, this novel published in 1931 is written collaboratively by a group of young writers who might be said to be the very kind of people of whom the first generation of male Indian novelists sought to produce an image in their writings.

Nine young Odia writers of the 1920s  (six men, three women, some of whom, like Kalindi Charan Panigrahi, Annada Shankar Ray and Sarala Devi, went on to have significant literary careers) come together in Basanti to write a story on the theme of gender for the youth of India. In keeping with the spirit of the novel form, which is always aware of ambiguities and of discordances with any idealistic project, the book is also a richly imagined scenario of the pitfalls that might lie in the path of this Indian new compact of love, compassion and intellectual companionship in marriage.

At the beginning of the novel, we see young Basanti, a spirited, book-loving girl in the town of Cuttack, left orphaned when her beloved mother passes away. No matter: she has many well-wishers, and none more than the good-hearted college student Debabrata, who greatly empathises with her difficult position in the world. Debabrata loves reading, writing and social work – and is apparently a feminist to boot. In an early scene, he is seen giving a speech to the student union of his college on “The Duty of the Student Community with Regard to the Autonomy of Women” and is laughed out of the room, partly because some of the other students allege that he thinks what he does because he is in love with Basanti.

Despite these challenges, Debabrata and Basanti come ever closer together, the only hurdle in their way the skeptical figure of Nirmala Devi, to whose village household Debabrata must return – and perhaps take Basanti – when he has finished his studies. Eventually, this is what happens, although it is Debabrata who announces unilaterally to Basanti that he has decided they are to get married – the first sign that he may not be as immune to the old complacencies of masculinity as he fancies.

The novel is a very sensitive rendering of what happens to a intellectually agile woman when subsumed to the hoary old pieties of family life – because no other choice is available to her. Basanti’s life in the village becomes a never-ending round of service to her mother-in-law, in the hope of earning her approbation. But this is merely to cede power to the institution and authority she has reluctantly embraced. Even Debabrata begins to feel guilty for suppressing his wife’s individuality and intellectual spark, but nor can he criticise his mother.

The writers of Basanti take turns to show how their heroine slowly loses her sense of self in her new surroundings. The two secure sources of solace in Basanti’s life are her old friends and her books. In a key scene in the book, we see Basanti reading Tagore’s Gora, a novel she greatly loves. She tells her new friend in the village, Nisa, “As I was reading this book, the thought came to me that like the characters in this book we too could do something” – the clearest sign possible of the early Indian novel’s desire to light a lamp for a new path in Indian history, and also an indication of Odia writers fashioning their own Indian novelistic canon. Basanti thinks of starting a school for the village girls – an idea that sends her mother-in-law into a fury.

Matters eventually come to a head, turning once again upon an act of reading or writing. Debabrata comes across an article written by Basanti in a literary magazine. There, he questions the pervasive patriarchal cast of the world and asks, “Why is the idea that women are subordinate so lasting and all pervasive? Why has no one imagined a distinct and independent identity for women, separate from men?” Ideals clash with reality: he takes this as a personal criticism of him. When we hear him say, “Now Basa, please tell me what kind of autonomous life you would lead that has nothing to do with me,” we know that, whatever the state of their marriage at a legal and social level, the marriage of minds that the two of them had once dreamt of is over.

Basanti, then, is a book about the recasting of the balance of power between man and woman in modern India. Most interestingly, it is written in a self-reflexive way that greatly deepens the relationship between reading, selfhood, freedom and agency so prominent in the early Indian novel. While reading the novel, we are always aware, every time we start a new chapter and see that the narration has changed hands, that the nine men and women who wrote it come together in the book not just as writers but as readers. In order to take the story forward, since each one had first to absorb the character and narrative cues set up by his or her predecessor, and to work in a spirit both of individuality and partnership. All nine of them were Basanti by turns and together, sometimes as writers and other times as readers.

In an echo of Prafulla’s fate in Bankim’s Debi Chaudhurani, Basanti, too, is cast out of the house by Debabrata. Eventually, the sundered couple are reunited – but in a somewhat melodramatic way that goes against the realistic spirit of the first half of the book, and that may have been a concession to readerly expectations.

Basanti’s dream of a world in which women may have their own identity, however, rings as clear as a bell long after one has put the book down – as does her idea that men and women may reshape their historical relationship by reading and reflection. Echoes of Basanti’s dream can be found in Indian novels all the way through the twentieth century, such as in Yashpal’s Jhootha Sach (1955).

There, the protagonist Jaidev, a journalist, mourns the loss of the great love of his life, Kanak, because of Partition, as the loss of a marriage in which both husband and wife would have been equals, if not in the eyes of the world, then certainly within their own home. “Had she been there, they would have worked as one and achieved great new heights. Kanak's dream was to have a house of their own, both of them at their desks, writing and creating.” The new translation by Mohapatra and St-Pierre restores to the Indian novelistic canon a text that represents a kind of apotheosis – both in terms of the story and the conditions of its composition – of a grand theme of the early Indian novel: women who read so that they may imagine a new womanhood, and world, into being.

[A slightly different form of this essay appeared recently in Open magazine under the title "Basanti's Dream".]