Being ordinary

IRA PANDE

 

 

I donÕt quite see my mother comfortably installed on a pedestal in this League of Extraordinary Women. That she was extraordinary now appears to be an accepted part of her reputation yet all her life she lived an ordinary life, in an ordinary flat, in an ordinary city in UP, in an ordinary neighbourhood that had mostly middle level sarkari folk and some very small-minded people as well. Life had taught her the value of living under the radar and so she wore her reputation and popularity lightly, happy to be largely ignored by the Big BoysÕ Club of Important Writers. So she wrote furiously all the time after we had all left to live our own lives and created a world for herself that sustained her for almost 30 years.

Ironically, she has outlived all those snobbish writers and critics who dismissed her as a mere writer of domestic romances that appealed to gharelu women. In terms of sheer popularity, she still outsells them and refuses, even after her death, to go gently into the night. I have often written about her and yet I am amazed at how much there is still left to discover. Years ago, I wrote a memoir about her (Diddi: My MotherÕs Voice, Penguin, 2005) recalling her life through her short stories and pen-portraits, interspersed with my own memory of the background of these works. It was a kind of homage to a mother I forgot to honour sufficiently when she was alive and an act of expiation for having treated her literary work so dismissively. That book opened my eyes to a personality that she had kept hidden from all of us and nudged me into exploring her works through translation into English, a language that I was more comfortable reading. The act of translation also allowed me to explore her in another idiom, one that had a different set of social relations and web of memories.

 

 

My mother, whose pen name was Shivani, was born into a prosperous, highly educated family of Kumaoni brahmins. Her maternal grandfather was an eminent surgeon in Lucknow who started its first womenÕs college called Mahila College and set up the famous Balrampur Hospital there after persuading his rich patients to endow these institutions. Her fatherÕs family, by far more conservative, was headed by her grandfather, Pt Hariram Pande, a renowned scholar of Sanskrit and Astrology. A close friend of Pt Madan Mohan Malviya, he helped to raise funds for the Banaras Hindu University, then went on to become one of its founding faculty members.

His son, ShivaniÕs father, was the complete antithesis of his stern father and freely smoked and drank, ate meat and was more comfortable with his English friends than with his fatherÕs austere circle of philosophers and savants. He respected his father but made it clear that his life was his own. So, he chose to work in the princely states after a long stint at RajkotÕs Rajkumar College for the scions of the royal families, many of whom invited him later to become their adviser.

Shivani grew up in this crazily mixed up world and was equally enchanted with her fatherÕs glamorous life in the princely states of Jasdan, Orchha and Rampur as she was in awe of her sternly brahmanical grandfather in Almora. The three eldest children – Jayanti, Tribhuvan and she – were sent to Shantiniketan by their grandfather to keep them as far away from the hedonistic life of the rajwadas as possible. Shivani spent almost a decade under the tutelage of the gurus of the ashram and that experience is what made her what she became. She has recorded this in her memoir Amader Shantiniketan, written over 60 years ago, a book that lay almost forgotten until an English translation brought it to the notice of those readers who do not read any other language.

I think this slim book is the key to her personality and towards under-standing what made an ordinary life extraordinary. In the years that she spent at TagoreÕs Ashram, she was exposed to some of the most amazing gurus and befriended several students who went to become IndiaÕs cultural icons. Satyajit Ray, Mrinalini Sarabhai, Ram Kinkar Baij, Balraj Sahni, Acharya Hajari Prasad Dwivedi, Kshitimohan SenÉthe list is long and spans writers, film makers, actors, artists and scholars the like of whom we will have to wait for another cultural Renaissance to spawn. Nine years spent far away from home in the company of such eminent persons at the most impressionable and exciting time of the countryÕs awakening was bound to leave a deep and lasting impact. And it did, for throughout her life Shivani carried the memory of that enchanted education like an inner light that illumined the darkest times she was soon pitchforked into.

 

 

Shivani returned from Shantiniketan in 1944, three years after Tagore had passed away, and came home to find a life that had turned upside down. Her beloved grandfather and father passed away soon after one another and the family was left to fend for itself, sans its wealth. My grandmother, widowed in her early forties, with nine children to bring up in a large house and many servants she could no longer afford to keep, slowly started selling off the silver and valuables to feed this large retinue. However, old habits die hard and the generous open house that she had always kept was still a sanctuary for relatives, hangers-on and old friends. In those days, material wealth did not have the primacy that it has acquired now and as my grandmother was fond of telling us, ŌKhandaan and paandaan were all that mattered.Õ So my mother was married off to another high-born Brahmin family to a young widower who was still grieving for his beloved first wife who had left behind a small two-year-old daughter.

 

 

I am still unable to fit these two jagged pieces of my motherÕs life to make a credible picture. From the free, liberal and artistic world of her childhood and Shantiniketan, she found herself pitchforked into the dingy, cloistered life of a sternly patriarchal and brahminical life, to become a stepmother to a small, wilful girl and a husband who never stopped loving the wife he had lost.

I can only marvel at her resilience: to start over a new life that was light years away from the privileged and spoilt childhood she had been accustomed to would be enough to try the limits of a young woman of her age and upbringing. So, she drew a resolute curtain over that life and became a mother to four children, a wife to a husband who was both difficult and temperamentally her polar opposite and created a world that no one would be able to snatch away from her. This is the world that she fashioned in her numerous novels, short stories and more and eventually this world sustained her in a way that her ordinary life was unable to.

Upon reflection, it appears to me that ShivaniÕs most prolific literary output and some of her most memorable and popular novels date to the years when Hindi magazines were avidly read across North India. Among these, Dharmyug (edited then by the formidable Dharmveer Bharati, a widely respected novelist and dramatist) occupied pride of place. Published by Bennett and Coleman, its owners (Sahu Jain and Rama Jain) promoted creative writing and later endowed the Gyanpeeth Award, the first privately endowed prestigious literary award for writers in various Indian languages.

 

 

The Bennett and Coleman Group (later known as the Times of India group) also brought out a clutch of other magazines. Among these were Sarika (contemporary Hindi writing, edited by Kamleshwar) and Dinman (a political and economic weekly, edited by Agyeya) both respected for their content and editorial gravitas. Filmfare, a film magazine and the Illustrated Weekly of India were their popular English language publications. The Hindustan Times group, owned by the Birlas, published Saptahik Hindustan (as a rival to Dharmyug), Kadambini (as an alternative to Sarika) and vied with each other to publish serials by the most popular Hindi writers of those days. Throughout the Õ50s and Õ60s, there was not a single library or reader in North India that did not subscribe to these magazines.

Almost all ShivaniÕs novels – certainly her most popular ones – were first published as serials in one or the other magazines mentioned above. Her most well known novel, Krishnakali, published as a serial
in
Dharmyug in the Õ60s, was later published as a novel by Gyanpeeth
(the publishing house run by the
B&C group). In addition to these magazines, two others (Navneet and Gyanoday) I can recall from then were modelled on the popular American publication, ReaderÕs Digest. ShivaniÕs travelogues, essays and memorial tributes were regularly published in these Hindi digests.

 

 

Today, when we have lost the patience to wait for the instalment of a weekly serial and prefer reading our books in one gulp or binge-watch our favourite serials, it seems incredible that readers would follow ShivaniÕs serialized stories for months and savour them by reading them over and over again. Later, when they were published as novels, they were given a fresh lease of life and her publishers vied to get rights to publication even as it was still being serialised in a magazine. Although such publishing is now a part of literary lore and the subject of research papers, we must never forget the enormous role these serialised novels played in popularising quality literature.

Just as our early television serials are now re-run on Doordarshan to recall and emphasise the depth of their narratives against the trivial pursuits of the eternal saas-bahu bilge that spawned a whole industry of hysterical emotional dramas enacted by over-dressed actors, the simple dignity of women in our small towns and their small world was the spine of those literary serials. Written by authors who had a firm grip on local languages with a strong sense of social responsibility, they gave rise to a genre that has since vanished. Vulgarity – whether in speech or character – was completely absent and whether this indicates a prudery or an acknowledgement of what constitutes Ōgood and wholesomeÕ literature is for others to say. As a daughter who was brought up on whatever Shivani preached in her novels, I am no longer capable of giving an unbiased opinion.

Naturally, the serialised novel had its own effect on the writing it spawned. Fans wrote furious letters to Shivani when she betrayed their hopes (such as by killing off a character) or when she did not spend enough time on a particular strand of the narrative. This close bond between writer and reader was perhaps what contributed to the intimacy that readers developed over the years with their favourite writers. My sister Mrinal Pande (who edited Saptahik Hindustan in the Õ90s) recalls how typists vied with each other to type out ShivaniÕs (always) handwritten manuscript when she sent in a fresh instalment so that he/she would be the first to read it. The circulation of magazines jumped by as much as 55 per cent when her novels were being serialized and siblings fought with each other to grab the magazine to read it first when it was delivered to private homes. Often they tore the pages out so that they could share it among themselves.

 

 

What gave this genre its enormous reach and popularity was that these stories were significant documentaries. I would say that this was an early form of reality fiction based on real life characters and episodes and invisible to the writers based in our upcoming metros who consciously distanced themselves from these provincial lives to become more acceptable to a wider, international literary world. This is a fact often overlooked when tracing the evolution of Hindi writing.  As Vasudha DalmiaÕs book on fiction and history reveals, Hindi novels located in Allahabad, Agra, Aligarh, Banaras or Lucknow give us an insight into the social landscapes that were shaping middle class lives in the Õ50s and Õ60s. Beneath the romantic tales of young women and men, were rich subplots that reveal the gradual break up of orthodox joint families, the effect of education on the emancipation of women in provincial India and the effect of migration from small towns to industrial cities.

The language of everyday conversation in middle class homes and amongst families, the social terms of exchange between men and women, workers and employers – these are important markers of a world we seek today and cannot find because it no longer exists. What are often dismissed as kitchen tales and romantic fiction stood firm on its foundation because it was supported by tradition and ritual, food and taboos, folk remedies and aphorisms that nourished clans and villages. In the tightly packed houses of our old shahars separated by narrow lanes, the smells and sounds that travelled across neighbourhoods became rich lodes of narratives that had the authenticity of real lives.

 

 

The bonds between Hindu and Muslim homes, or between upper and lower caste settlements were strong threads that wove the fabric of our social communities. A deep suspicion of the other community was balanced by an equally strong love for individual men and women. Look for these common narrative strains and you will find them in all writers who lived and loved in little India.

Of ShivaniÕs portraits, two remain my favourites: ŌMera BhaiÕ, her loving tribute to her Muslim ŌbrotherÕ Hamid Bhai and ŌEk Thi RamratiÕ, a homage to her companion-maid, Ramrati. Short sketches they may be and often forgotten as a part of her literary legacy, to me they are moving accounts of how culturally liberal the Ganga-Jamuni culture of Lucknow – indeed most of the Gangetic Plain – once was. Today, when we like to dismiss it as the cow belt it may help to understand how its rich social history was distorted by vested political interests that manipulated its weaknesses.

However, many self-styled critics were so busy raising the bar higher that they forgot the earth they stood on. One by one, the magazines that transported an outer world to readers trapped in small towns were discontinued. Gradually, English was adopted as the language of trend-setting academic discourse and the ŌrealÕ debates shifted from cosy sahityik goshtis (literary soirees) in modest sitting rooms, where young and aspiring writers read out their work to senior writers. The new critical jousting spaces were now the seminar rooms of universities whose audiences had little interest in small towns and who viewed mofussil India as a petri dish in which to develop complex theories in meta-criticism. Such writers and critics wrote and spoke in coteries taking care not to pollute their pristine modern world with the smelly odours of spices that came from the kitchens of women writers who wrote of ordinary middle class longings and desires.

 

 

There was a time when oneÕs mother tongue was more important than the lingua franca being promoted by
English medium schools. My mother understood this, having been exposed to so many different languages as she and her siblings went from Gujarat to Kumaon, to Bundelkhand and Rampur and then to Shantiniketan to become fluent in Hindi, Urdu, Sanskrit, Kumaoni, Gujarati, Bengali, Marathi, English and Avadhi, Bundelkhandi as well. My generation may have lost a few of that huge palette of languages but retain several and added some (Punjabi in my case). My comfort level in English is undeniable but I have still kept up my reading in Hindi and speak Kumaoni to my siblings and cousins. And I can tell you that if my translation skills are valued today, it is in no small measure to my motherÕs insistence that we speak the language of the common man. She taught us to add, rather than drop, languages as we went along our lives.

 

 

In her last years, my mother spent more and more time in Lucknow and became a sort of fixture of the literary fraternity there. People came to meet her and learn from her but she herself never stopped learning. Every morning, she sat on her terrace, surrounded by her staff and a curious fan club that included Ramrati, her faithful maid, her children and grandchildren, Burho, an old crone who came because she had nowhere else to go, her rickshawala, Qutb Ali, her sweeper Mohan and wife Bahuriya, even a monkey called Ramkali who sat in her puja and put
out a paw to receive the prasad at the end. My mother was convinced Ramkali was a failed writer and read her newspaper upside down with ShivaniÕs reading glasses perched on her face. Who knows whether this was true or another one of my motherÕs extraordinary stories?

Yet this woman, who listened intently to her dhobi MisrilalÕs weekly saga of unhappiness at the hands of an uncaring daughter-in-law was equally at home in the company of Acharya Hajari Prasad Dwivedi, Amritlal Nagar, Mahadevi Verma and Sumitranandan Pant. Her greatest takeaway from her time at TagoreÕs Ashram and its liberal education was to remain a learner who listened intently to all those around her. Who can say whether the stories she has left behind had real characters behind them but to date all her readers stoutly believe that she was an extraordinary teller of tales who could make you believe her in whatever she wrote.

Perhaps that is what made her ordinary life so extraordinary after all.