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".]