Fierce, fearless, fun: Poonam Saxena remembers Subhadra Kumari Chauhan
Her stories capture the mood of the early 1900s. But it’s in her lifelong friendship with poet Mahadevi Varma, amid giggles, that her spirit shines.
When two schoolgirls met in Allahabad’s Crosthwaite Girls College in the early 1900s, they discovered a mutual love of writing poetry. Subhadra Kumari Chauhan was in Class 7, and Mahadevi Varma in Class 5. It was the beginning of a lifelong friendship.
Both grew up to become distinguished poets. Varma emerged as a colossus of the Chhayavad movement in Hindi poetry, and Chauhan, with a single poem, Jhansi Ki Rani, sealed her place in history. (Most of us know at least that one line: “Khoob ladi mardani woh toh Jhansi wali rani thi.” I remember learning several verses by rote in school.)
But Chauhan’s talents went far beyond poetry. She wrote impactful short stories and the complete collection, Subhadra Kumari Chauhan Ki Sampurna Kahaniyan, is worth a buy. Apart from having complex and layered characters and plots, they illuminate the times she lived in (1904-48), making them irresistible to a history and nostalgia buff like myself.
In Sone Ki Kanthi (Necklace of Gold; a dark and sad tale), a dapper man is described as wearing malmal and tanzeb (muslin and ornate) kurtas, rubbing perfumed oil in his hair, and being devoted to exercise. In Asmanjas (Confusion; a story of doomed love), we’re told a rich family in Allahabad’s Georgetown has an income of as much as ₹700 a month. Naari Hriday (Woman’s Heart) is set amid the plague epidemic. Accident describes a debauched man, Prannath, as someone who drinks alcohol and languidly scans the newspapers while a female singer sits in front of him singing a seductive thumri. All 46 stories yield such captivating details of the era.
Chauhan’s first poem, Neem, was published in Maryada magazine when she was just nine. She often wrote poetry sitting in the horse-cart on her way to school. Unusual for the time, her brother Rajbahadur Singh encouraged her poetic efforts.
When the time came to make arrangements for Chauhan to marry, Singh chose a progressive husband: Thakur Lakshman Singh Chauhan of Khandwa, Madhya Pradesh, a writer and patriot who volunteered with the Congress in its freedom-fighting activities.
Chauhan was married at 15, but continued her studies; Lakshman Singh too enrolled for an MA in Economics from University of Allahabad. But when Mahatma Gandhi gave the call for the non-cooperation movement, both abandoned their studies and threw themselves into the freedom movement. Chauhan was the first female satyagrahi in Jabalpur’s jhanda satyagraha or flag-raising movement, in 1922. Her renown today is as much for her writing as it is for being a committed soldier in the fight for India’s freedom.
Prison became almost like Chauhan’s household after marriage. Sometimes both husband and wife were in jail at the same time; sometimes she had her little children with her, sometimes she didn’t. Varma, in her deeply affectionate portrait of Chauhan in the book Path Ke Sathi (1956; Companions of the Way), narrates how the latter once had nothing to feed her daughter in jail but somehow managed to procure a little arhar dal, roasted it on a tava and gave it to the hungry child. Despite the hardship, Varma remembers Chauhan telling her laughingly that she got so many garlands each time she was imprisoned that she’d make a bed of flowers in her prison cell.
Many of Chauhan’s short stories are set against the backdrop of the freedom struggle. Amrai (Mango Orchard) is a particularly poignant story of a magistrate who orders a lathi charge on a festive crowd celebrating Raksha Bandhan and singing patriotic songs, only to discover that women and children of his own household have been injured, his seven-year-old grandson critically so. Gulabsingh is the true story of a 16-year-old who was shot by police in Jabalpur, during the 1942 Quit India movement. His crime: He held aloft the tricolour.
Chauhan wrote equally intense stories about women’s helplessness in the face of unjust societal norms. Her anger on this count reverberated in her personal life too. Varma recalls how Chauhan fought with her family at the time of her daughter’s wedding, when she refused to do a kanyadaan. “Does a human being have the right to give away another human being? Will my daughter not be my daughter after she gets married?” she argued.
Varma has warm memories of Chauhan bearing gifts every time she visited: chilli pickle, pooris, pedas, colourful chakla-belans, blue-and-gold bangles. Sometimes Chauhan, who had settled in Jabalpur after marriage, would pass through Allahabad on her way to a poetry conference and wouldn’t have the time to stop overnight in the city, so Varma would go to the railway station to meet her, even if it was for just a few minutes.
On one occasion, she says Chauhan took out a couple of shiny bangles and said with a laugh, “Like them? I bought two for you and two for myself. You’ll break them if you put them on yourself. Give me your hands, I’ll do it for you.”
Like all good friends, whenever they were together in public, they would resolve to behave themselves, but to no avail. In no time, they would break into fits of giggles. It was five minutes of giggling for every minute of not giggling, says Varma.
The laughter stilled on February 15, 1948, when Chauhan died in a road accident. She was 44. When her ashes were immersed, Varma wrote that, like a victory garland, she simply dissolved and dispersed in the water:
Yahin kahin bikhar gayi vah
Chhinn vijay-mala si!
It was Subhadra Kumari Chauhan’s 75th death anniversary three days ago.