Review: The Bride by Harimohan Jha, translated by Lalit Kumar
The first translation of this classic Maithili novel about a child marriage provides an insight into the culture of Mithila in the colonial period
A novel about Indian matchmaking originally written in Maithili in 1930, The Bride (Kanyadan) offers an intimate portrayal of Mithila society in the colonial period. The author Harimohan Jha was a lifelong crusader against oppressive social practices and he dedicated the book, among others, to “a society that gives away its daughters in marriage as commodities without any qualms.”
The story begins with 13-year-old Buchia’s family looking for a suitable groom for her. When she is matched with CC Mishra, an English educated young graduate of Banaras Hindu University, all seems well. Except that Mishra is completely cut off from the cultural and social norms of rural India. His reality has been shaped by reading English books and watching Hindi movies. As a result, he dreams of a partner who is a good orator, poet, singer, writer, tennis player – and glamorous like the film star Devika Rani.
The story touches upon several issues that plagued the less progressive regions of the country such as the education of girls, child marriage, dowry and ill matched marriages. “Another major issue was the Hindu religious prohibition against widow remarriage which left many girl widows condemned to lifelong deprivation of any kind of personal gratification or social status, in many cases even before they had reached puberty,” writes Harish Trivedi in the book’s Foreword.
First published in 1930 as serialised chapters in Mithila magazine, Kanyadan was an instant success and took Maithili literature by storm. In Mithila, it became a ritual to gift a copy of the book to a new bride. It went on to influence many novels and films on a similar theme in different languages. The first Maithili film, Kanyadan (1965), directed by Phani Majumdar, was based on Jha’s novel. Three years later, a Hindi film by the same name was released. Directed by Mohan Sehgal and starring Asha Parekh and Shashi Kapoor, it explored the theme of child marriage. Jha also wrote Dviragaman (1943), a sequel to Kanyadan.
Nine decades after its publication, the book has been translated into English by Lalit Kumar, a professor of English at the University of Delhi. Kumar first thought of translating this Maithili classic when he was researching the emergence of Maithili print culture as an MPhil student. As he grew more familiar with the cultural ethos of Mithila (now spread over parts of Nepal, Bihar and Jharkhand), he realized that not a single classic Maithili novel was available in English. He was further encouraged by Harimohan Jha’s granddaughter, Rupa Jha, who shared facts, books, anecdotes and rare photographs related to her grandfather.
The story offers a glimpse into the customs, songs, proverbs, wedding rites, taboos and superstitions of the rural areas of Mithila. Maithili traditions are also highlighted, such as the kohbar – Madhubani paintings of lotus leaves and flowers, bamboo groves, fish, birds, snakes and the kadam tree. Some exemplary female figures of Mithila, such as Goddess Janaki, Bharati and Lakshmi Thakurain are also mentioned.
Jha’s unique literary style often employs comical visual similes to describe various scenes of the story. At one instance, he likens the setting sun to “a sulking son in law” and a group of porters jumping onto a vessel’s deck to “Sugreev’s army of monkeys and bears”. The novel is quite multilingual with a mix of conversations in a number of languages – proverbs and songs in Maithili, dialogues in Hindi and English, shlokas in Sanskrit, and words in Urdu. Jha himself was proficient in English, Hindi and Maithili. Though he taught and published in English and some of his philosophical works are in Hindi, all his fiction was written in Maithili, his mother tongue.
In the book’s Introduction, Kumar writes: “Several episodes in the novel foreground the multilingual complexities of Bihar,” where Hindi was promoted during the colonial era at the expense of local languages. During the time, the swadeshi movement was sweeping through the country, and wearing homespun clothes or khadi was quite popular – which also finds mention in the novel.
In the novel, Mishra is tricked into marrying the innocent Buchia and is disappointed when he discovers that she is illiterate. He expects “a steam engine” but realizes that she is “the wheel of a bullock cart”. He decides to flee, which naturally leaves the bride heart broken. But he does so, with the resolve to lay down his life in the movement against the exploitation and killing of girls in a self-centred society. Though it has a tragic end, the story leaves the reader with a powerful message – one that is as relevant today as it was when the novel was first published.
A freelance writer based in New Delhi, Neha Kirpal writes primarily on books, music, films, theatre and travel.