We are used to reading fictions from the Subcontinent (much of it below par) that seem perennially to swing between the two psycho-social poles of pre and post-marriage lives, with all its unsavoury offshoots – a long, never ending A Suitable Boy. The former is spent under controlling parents who consider it their inviolable right to make every important (and unimportant) decision of your life and the latter wasted under the burdens of connubial anti-bliss from whose poisonous claws the only safe escape is death, natural or brought forward (Throw in a love story to make all this palatable). Both lives are bound together by a shared thread of entrapment and women characters, naturally, lead those stories.
There is no gainsaying a mindset that views children as human properties whose relationship with their parents is given idealised treatment in filial caricatures reminiscent of master-disciple relationships of mystical tales: smiling, submissive, sacrificing, histrionic, conforming – ready to leap into the fire on a subtle hint of the nod. Maa, tu kahe to main jaan de doon.This is supposed to be out of love, respect and duty. And if there’s anyone who thinks marriage is not a fixed point of reference in a life-calender from which the BCs and ACs of one’s existential trajectory are measured, then one should pick up this novella and see for herself that a desi life can almost be reduced to a formula: birth, marriage, death. (Who knows, this in part may also account for the extremely fecund wombs of our women. My grandmother were 16 brother and sisters, none of them half)
One reason for the proliferation of these themes is the massive influence Progressive Writers’ Movement exercised on writers who led the Indian literary scene from 1930s onwards. They focused, inter alia, on social realities they believed were incompatible with the spirit of the time that valued social justice and battled gender inequality. Underprivileged people, especially women and poor, were made the subject of countless stories. So much was written with so much speed that women found themselves trapped between conflicting and competing ideas of male reformers about the role women should have in society. But on the bright side this literary exercise did much to raise popular consciousness. A debate was set going that couldn’t be stopped.
Rajinder Singh Bedi was an integral part of the new movement and a stalwart Urdu writer on social issues. He knew how to draw out emotions without dragging the protagonists through a sentimentalist swamp. Here in this novel he elicits sympathy through careful blending of tribal ethos with Rano’s simple desire for familial happiness that has fallen apart when her husband, Tiloka, is murdered. She is no angry intellect soliloquising endlessly in utter disbelief, an easy and once famous way to get a story out of a literary midget, but a sorrowful heart bracing the blows of widowhood with her strength of character; the unique situation she is faced with brings out most prominently the absurdity of her conundrum: in her best interests she is required to marry Mangal, her dead husband’s younger brother, who is many years her junior and whom she had raised like a son.
Rano’s complete silence adds to the sheer confusion of young Mangal whose simmering romance with a village girl he’s supposed to marry is common knowledge. Family elders ‘ask’ Mangal point blank to sacrifice his love to offer male protection to Rano who, of course, could not survive on her own as a widow with young children.
Whether or not they escape this trap is for the reader to find out, but it turns out that men, too, are victims of the same system that puts them above women.
(First published in Urdu 1967; translated by Khushwant Singh)