Resurgence of a cult 1961 Hindi novel in English storytelling
It was a cherished dream of mine to study English honours at Lady Shri Ram College for Women in New Delhi. Looking back, I wonder why this preference for LSR over Miranda House, which was the most happening college in the 1970s.
Perhaps, it was because several seniors of the smart set in our school in Shillong were studying there and some of my classmates also had their hearts set on the college or it was maybe because the college, which is located in Lajpat Nagar, had been the subject of animated discussion for the goings-on that had inspired Pachpan Khambe Laal Deevaren, the debut novel of the Hindi fiction writer Usha Priyamvada.
I was but a child of six when the novel was released, but it seemed to have caught the imagination of my mother, sister-in-law and cousins for striking new ground in telling a woman’s story. Ours was a family that had more books on the shelves than money in the bank and reading was a constant passion.
I think it was the poetic name that struck me most about the novel. Even though circumstances at home did not allow my dream to be fulfilled and I went to the Government College of Women in Chandigarh instead, I would always cast longing glances at the red walls and try to count the pillars, as though it was a magic mantra, when our cab or auto-rickshaw passed by the college on our way to my brother’s house in Delhi’s Greater Kailash.
All these memories came flooding as I held a mint-fresh copy of the novel, which has been brilliantly translated into English by Daisy Rockwell, in my hands. I stayed awake all night as I read this well-told story, chronicling the dreams and disappointments of the ill-fated love affair of Sushma and Neel set in the vintage Delhi of the 60s.
A sense of déjà vu
As one gets immersed in the story of Sushma, a working woman and sole provider for her large family, there is a strange feeling that one has experienced this before not just in literature and cinema but in life as well. This is especially true in the homes of large middle-class families that were ravaged during the Partition. In such circumstances, many women were compelled to seek education and join the workforce, but with strings attached, which kept them trapped despite achieving economic independence.
Kamla Dutt, who was witness to the feminine struggle of the 60s mentions the travails of the daughters of Partition at the hands of their own mothers in the poem, ‘City Named After Goddess Chandi’: “It was a bad year for the city/Named after Goddess Chandi/ So many daughters had taken their lives/Mothers of Partition/ with too many daughters/Then had turned hard/ Fury of semi-educated mothers unparalleled/ Their daughters, their rivals/ their shame…”
So, it is with Sushma, the protagonist of the novel, who feels trapped in a prison with 55 pillars and red walls, where even her prince charming, Neel, cannot reach her. She introduces herself to him with a touch of bitterness saying: “Age: 33 years; home: poor; Hindi teacher…is there anything else you would like to know?”
Behind these red walls, Sushma, in spite of her relative youth and elegance, is resigned to the regimented loneliness of her life until she meets the persistent Neel, but even then the walls and pillars do not make way for her to experience love and togetherness as she is locked in the mental and social paradigms, which her family imposes on her. She must support her younger siblings, even at the cost of her own happiness.
Datedness and women’s writing
On the challenge of translating this novel, which is set over half a century ago, the remarkable translator, Daisy Rockwell, says: “The descriptive choice brings fashion to the fore in ‘Fifty-five Pillars’, and attracts the critique of ‘datedness’ to the writing. The clothing styles belong so clearly to the era that we feel we are flipping through an old issue of Femina magazine, circa 1960. And yet, I have no doubt that old issues of Femina also contain valuable clues for the mapping of women’s history!”
In fact, Rockwell, with a PhD in South-Asian literature began with translating the works of Hindi writer Upendranath Ashk who hailed from Punjab. A painter-scholar she has also translated from Urdu ‘The Inner Courtyard’ by Khadija Mastoor and ‘A Gujrat Here, A Gujrat There’ by famed author Krishna Sobti.
In fact, all three novels could well be dismissed as ‘dated’. Interestingly, even Usha Priyamvada, whose books extremely popular in Hindi were never translated into English, initially dismissed the idea of having this particular novel translated. Now, all of 90 years and long settled in the US, Usha wrote to Daisy saying: “Translate my most recent novel. I fear that one is too dated.”
But for a literary scholar like Daisy there was no ‘this’ or ‘that’ and she says: “Fifty-five Pillars gives us readers, more than 55 years later, a window into a particular moment in women’s history, when women with apparent freedom and advanced education struggled for independence and autonomy.”
It is a point well made and this novel may prove to be a flagship for Indian Novels Collective as Ashwani Kumar, one of the moving forces behind the collective, says the effort is: “To bridge the gap between the English reader and classics of Indian literature by making available quality translations and building reader communities that celebrate Indian storytelling.”
Published with care by Speaking Tiger, it is indeed a cherished addition to the bookshelf of this writer who once longed to know college life beyond those 55 pillars and red walls so enticing in youth!