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Prerna Kalbag, Hindustan Times
May 25, 2013
A Life Apart: An Autobiography
Prabha Khaitan; Translated from Hindi by Ira Pande
Zubaan  Rs. 395  PP 285

One of the most arresting things about feminist writer and poet Prabha Khaitan’s autobiography (entitled Anya se Ananya in the Hindi original) is its naked narrative and its almost poetic vulnerability. Simply written, the narrative flows languorously. Yet there are moments when it brings to life certain instances with its descriptions; moments when Khaitan talks about the students’ strikes and Calcutta; moments when the intensity of her relationship with Dr Saraf is brought to light. In the last instance, it is sickening how dependency overtook love, want, perhaps even passion: “Ours was not merely a physical relationship, although it started with love. Yet gradually, that love was overlaid with layers of other feelings and the sharp sweetness of that first flush of love receded. What remained was a sick dependence, a habit and — for me — a security blanket. My life was so completely tied with his that I could not even visualize my existence without him. He became a sort of sanctuary and even though I earned as much or more than him, the prospect of a life without him was so frightening that I turned away from the possibility of his absence. He and I shared a bond that I was never able to make with anyone before or after.”

There are many ironic, complicated and beautiful contradictions about this life story, much like the woman herself. For Prabha Khaitan was eccentric, passionate, impulsive, and often made errors that would make many feminists wince. She was not afraid to whole-heartedly depend on a man, not afraid to allow love to dominate her life, and not afraid to declare out loud to him that ‘she would always belong to him’, even though he is allowed to belong to no one woman. For someone who went against tradition, these instances make you wonder why she allowed a man to rule her to the extent that he did.

And yet this flawed hero has her moments of grace. She triumphs in following her heart at every juncture in her life. Some incidents during her sojourn in America, especially, are funny. The narrative splendidly notes down the tension and passions of moments; the pulls and bumps on the road that create a journey. Throughout, there is an acute sense of the protagonist’s struggle as an outsider, a window peeper. A woman belonging to her paramour but having no place beside his wife; the other woman tied to her married lover. A sense of identity has a rooted, if invisible, and haunting presence in the narrative, beginning with Khaitan being the unconventional daughter and extending to her unique Marwari identity in Bengal, the only place she could call home.

The book is too fast-paced and flows in unequal waves. For innumerable reasons, though, this remarkable autobiography should be read.

Prerna Kalbag is an independent journalist