Living with a colonial burden
Ira Pande on her mother Shivani who was instinctively writing about gender issues much before they became self-conscious territories, and the plight of bhasha writers today.
IN DEFENCE OF BHASHA LITERATURE: Ira Pande.
IT is strangely refreshing when you hear a writer say, "the best stories are the ones told simply". We've heard it often enough but the "sameness" of such wisdom doesn't bore; on the contrary, it reassures and gives courage. Ira Pande writes as she speaks, honestly, straight from the heart, just as her mother Shivani wrote. It reaffirms our belief that "craft is not so important", that in Diddi, Ira brought Shivani's life and writing to life again, by breathing her very soul into each page.
The writer Shivani and Ira's mother, were two distinct personalities, sometimes fusing, sometimes in conflict, a "great raconteur and a clown, mom wasn't a natural mother. She was unique, a free spirit, she never should have been married, especially to my father who was completely different. It weighed on her. Being intrinsically fair and just, she did justice to all of it wifely duties, mothering, household affairs. It kept her away from her writing and she was essentially trapped that was the core of her and the drama of this story. She was a woman constantly trying to live two lives that was her problem. To have a life she couldn't live fully and forced to live a life that she didn't want to. This is the base for both her stories, `Lathi' and `Lal Haveli'."
It seems Ira has lived through each moment of her mother's life, even the distant years of her childhood and her years in Shantiniketan. With graceful equanimity, she quipped, "she was an impatient sibling, she wanted all her chores to be over with so she could get on with her writing. Her life in Lucknow with a motley crowd of clowns, her retinue of domestic help, were the loneliest but the happiest. No wonder Mrinal called her Queen Lear and her maid Ramrati was her alter ego! She made no demands on us, coming back to my house only when she felt the need, saying, `I've come to your house to die.' When I was growing up, I often wished she was like other mothers but she would just flit in and out of our lives and we never really shared that intimacy between a mother and a daughter. She had a quotient of madness, a way of seeing things differently and the ability to laugh at herself. She gave all this to us."
Shivani's writing spans almost the whole century and works as an authentic documentation of the twists and turns of life in pre- and post-Independence India. She was caught in a time when domesticity was the only way of life for women. Before gender and feminism became important and self-conscious territories, Shivani was already instinctively writing about it without a self-conscious agenda. She grasped the core issues of feminism, the struggle to find our selves, accepting our responsibilities as women but not submitting to the choices thrust upon us. Ira feels that "we've de-feminised ourselves to prove we are good. Outer manifestations don't give inner strength. Suffrage and abortion rights weren't won by wearing spaghetti straps. What's the point - these girls surrender to their fathers, brothers, grooms. What have spaghetti straps given you that an ordinary blouse can't?"
Shivani was naturally drawn to those who'd been marginalised. She didn't have a political agenda, protest rallies were not her game though a lot of writers of her age had gravitated towards politics and had she walked that road, she would have made a phenomenal leader. Ira grew up in a home which was frequented by literary luminaries like Ismat Chugtai, Mahadevi Verma, Krishna Chander, Salma Siddiqui, Amrita Rai, Harivanshrai Bachchan, Hazari Prasad Dwivedi. "We were so stupid, we never realised they were such great writers. We were brought up simply, had very little place in our lives for money, there were no yellow and red pointed shoes, no add-ons or holidays for us only books and a frugal Brahmanical existence."
A different narrative
Ira read Shivani's work and then re-read some, wanting to translate her "short stories which I like the best." It struck her there was much more embedded in there than just stories and "I didn't want to write a biography. My husband suggested that I treat her like a character in a book. That gave me a distance and a perspective. The book grew and it worked well as a genre, going well with mom's chameleon like personality." Working on Diddi, Ira wrote simply, lyrically. "It was more of confessional for me, an honest admission of my feelings like how I felt when I saw my father's photo with his first wife, not my mom the poignancy of the situation came out because I wrote honestly."
"Around the time of Independence, our regional `bhasha' literature had a richer bank. English writing didn't even have a status. Mulk Raj Anand had to go abroad for publishing. It's a reversal now, most people don't even know the big names who are writing in Marathi. Our strength is in our plurality, why should we destroy what we already have? Some of the most modern, most real work, in terms of the country is being done by the `bhasha' writers. We owe it to them to translate their work, to make it reach the larger reader audiences. Translations are what I want to do." Currently working on translating late Manohar Shyam Joshi's novel and Shivani's Apradhini, which talks of women in prison in the late 1960s, Ira felt, "some books age well. My own book is in my head. I'll do it when I find the courage. My sense of dignity is rather fragile, I'm choosing to hide behind translations."
Matter of concern
The rise of Indian writing in English is a matter of concern for Ira. "We've made English writing only for the English speaking people, we've cut ourselves away from our roots and there is a kind of sameness in the fiction that's coming out. There is no connection with ordinary life; this kind of writing is not a part of our fictional landscape. It's quite literally literature for the `baba log' and `baby log'. An ordinary reader cannot connect emotionally or academically with people of Indian origin living in ghettos in New York or Birmingham. The great promise lies in our non-fiction. Suketu's Maximum City, for instance, was very impressive."
No money in it
Bhasha literature in our country is doing extremely good work but sadly there are no readers and there is no money in it for our writers. "Except for Katha and Sahitya Akademi, no one is really working in this field. We are killing whatever little writing that's being done in our bhashas by imposing English translations on them. Hindi has to be translated to English and promoted abroad. Kiran Desai doesn't need to be promoted, everyone will run to translate her work. The lesser known yet substantial and great writers need to be given a push. English Literature in India has acquired the glamour of Bollywood. It has its SRKs and ABs."
"We still live with the colonial burden, in spite of claims otherwise. You should have seen the hype that was created around William Dalrymple's new book, the crowds that came but the reality is that only a very thin crust of the urban English speaking population is getting to read these books. Popular writing in Marathi, Kannada, Malayalam is being ignored. My mother's books were being sold, printed on toilet paper. What will happen if we treat our own with so much contempt? The glitz and commerce of India shining is probably going to scare good writers away, only those who are glib and well connected will get picked up."
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