Roundabout: When literature becomes balm for women who love too much - Hindustan Times
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Roundabout: When literature becomes balm for women who love too much

ByNirupama Dutt
Jan 14, 2024 07:46 AM IST

Memories have a strange habit of turning up on cold winter nights tucked in a quilt; this time, it is a conversation in a women’s room, sitting with poets Amrita Pritam and Fahmida Riaz, that comes back to mind

Memories have a strange habit of turning up on cold winter nights tucked in a quilt and this time it is a conversation in a women’s room that comes back to the mind, sitting with poets Amrita Pritam and Fahmida Riaz.

Amrita Pritam Punjabi (HT File)
Amrita Pritam Punjabi (HT File)

It is a difficult task indeed when one broods across yesterday, today and tomorrow. More so on the day of the festival of Lohri when the community bonfire celebrations of the festival have come to a close. All one does is muse about the past and present.

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Memory has a strange way of taking the mind to forgotten dates, places and conversations. The mind meanders here and there. Suddenly one finds oneself in “Dilwalon ki Dilli”. I suddenly find myself in Delhi’s Defence Colony where I camped, having run away more than once to escape the pressures of the small town of Chandigarh, which it was in those times. Delhi, I felt, was the nearest escape to the likes of me to get over a broken heart. And I did it more than once in short and long stays to get away form the woes of a small-town girl.

French writer Simone de Beauvoir (HT )
French writer Simone de Beauvoir (HT )

I remember that morning of spring in my “barsati” very vividly because when I opened the newspaper and saw the news on page one that Simone de Beauvoir, the great French writer who had the changed the definition of womanhood for all times in her fiction as well as her famous book of prose, “The Second Sex”. It was the 14th of April in 1986.The passing away of the cult French writer-intellectual, existentialist philosopher, feminist and more was deeply felt for those who had read her and followed her life that broke many norms, rejecting her the bourgeois background, pursuing scholarship, telling anew the story of the second sex and a lifelong companion of the giant existentialist philosopher Jean Paul Sartre.

When a literary icon passes away, a reader has the compelling urge to share a personal grief for somewhere the words have touched the soul deeply, and made an impact on lives of women the world over. Who should I go to was the question in a city not quite my own and then they say that Delhi belongs to no one. But even a metropolis has a few rooms where one can go to share one’s emotions. And so I came down from my “barsati” and caught a bus to Hauz Khas, where our very own Amrita Pritam, the woman who had loved, lost and loved again, lived in K-25 with bougainvillaea trailing to the first-floor window of her room and a flowering Parijat tree stood in the little garden below.

Grief needs to be shared

Amrita used the drawing room only for formal visitors. Others were welcomed to her room, which had chairs, but most of us liked to sit on the fluffy bedside rug with cushions thrown around. She already had a guest sitting on the carpet resting her back on a cushion — the radical Urdu poet Fahmida Riaz, those days in exile in Delhi for opposing the dictatorial regime of the then Pakistan President, Zia-ul-Huq, who was two years away from the last encounter with the box of exploding mangoes.

Perhaps, it was the passing away of Simone the day before that had brought her to be by the side of our own sub-continent grown radical writer Amrita.

The conversation over tumblers of tea slowly steered through to the life and writings of the French existentialist. Amrita, a precocious poet, had little formal education limited to the Punjabi gyani studies, but she had made up for it not only by reading world literature copiously. And not just that, she made it a point to translate what appealed to her the most and translated it into Punjabi for the readers of her journal “Nagmani”.

The conversation drifted from the courageous life of Simone to her writings, especially her novels, which found the writer at her best. Amrita started talking about the epic philosophical romance by Simone “The Mandarins”, which gave a searing portrayal of women in the intellectual circles of Paris in this most profound 1954 novel by her which won her the Prix Goncourt for the best and most imaginative prose of the year. Interestingly, the protagonist couple, Robert and Anne Dubreuilh, were taken to be images of Sartre and Simone and their relationship. Theirs was a story that moved at least two generations into re-thinking the roles of women.

So the conversation that morning moved from women in love to women out of love. Interestingly, “Women in Love” was the title of the controversial novel by DH Lawrence (1885-1930) privately printed in 1920 and published commercially in 1921. It is the novel Lawrence himself considered his masterpiece. Set in the English Midlands, the novel traces the lives of two sisters, Ursula and Gudrun, and the men with whom they fall in love. The two pairs of lovers struggle for the realisation of their romantic impulses, but that is not to be for myriad reasons which willy-nilly come in the way of lovers ranging from social and political to personal.

Fahmida Riaz (HT)
Fahmida Riaz (HT)

I still recall Riaz telling a story of her college days in Pakistan of her immense love for a young man who was not as committed to her as she was. She shared, “I was reduced to a nervous wreck when he stopped caring for me as before and would not respond with the love that I still had for him. A shadow of myself and turned to reading what I could and then I read Simone’s “The Mandarins”. After that I understood the humiliation of a woman in loving someone who no longer cares for her. And I was cured out of hopeless love.” I shared that it was “The Mandarins” that had healed me out of an unhappy liaison and brought me out of my small city to Delhi.

The three of us laughed with just a touch of sadness and then turned from our stories to celebrate the legacy of Beauvoir. When I left K-25 it was a bus again to the Bahadur Shah Zafar Marg to write an obituary to the great French writer. I recall it was titled “The Novels of Simone were our friends”. That was then and now when I find my granddaughter singing a song of her childhood “Mere saiyaan ji, se aaj maine breakup kar lia”. It makes me chuckle and think sometimes emotions change for the better!

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