This translation from the Marathi original is about a woman’s struggle to live on her own terms a century ago.
Kalindi, Shanta Gokhale’s brilliant translation of Shridhar V. Ketkar’s original Brahmankanya, with its thought-provoking content and racy style takes one’s breath away.
Kalindi (Brahmankanya) A Novel
Speaking Tiger Books LLP
The questions it discusses—the grip that caste has over you how much ever you may try to break away, the difficulties educated women face in finding the right match, the unequal status of men and women in a relationship, what marriage means to a woman, and whether marriage is necessary at all for both men and women—are relevant even today. However, what makes the book unputdownable is the way the author plunges into the plot straightaway. From the very first chapter, we get a full-blown account of the mores that prevailed a century ago. Brahmankanya was originally published in 1930.
The book shows that it was common then for women born out of wedlock, or with mixed caste backgrounds, to cohabit with Brahmins or wealthy merchants as mistresses. They were occasionally accepted by the man’s family, and they even treated his children as their own. They also bore children from these relationships, whose existence was not hidden from society.
However, the children, marked by their dubious status, were doomed to be rejected by Brahmins, who set the tone for the rest of society to follow, especially in Pune, where much of the book is set.
However, the heroine’s Brahmin father breaks this hypocritical tradition. He marries a woman born out of wedlock, instead of having her as his mistress. His revolutionary act, however, is not devoid of sanctimony. His aim is not to “smash” caste; rather, he is a true believer in the superiority of his own caste. He hopes his marriage will both “elevate” his wife’s lowly status and help expand the frontiers of Brahmin thought, and persuade his caste fellows to accommodate her in their hallowed circle.
Alas! That never happens. The consequences of his marriage thus haunt his children. How his eldest child, Kalindi, deals with these forms the backbone of the novel.
Ketkar’s tongue-in-cheek, often biting style, is another reason it is difficult to put the book down. Hypocrisy is punctured wherever it appears. Even people such as Mahadev Govind Ranade and his Prarthana Samaj are not spared; they refer to him as “Mahadya Ranade” and the members of the samaj as “fuddy-duddies”. Kalindi and her brother’s unsparing contempt for them leaves one stunned, but then it stems from their personal experience of the pitiless caste system.
The system is shown as pitiless more because of the location of the novel: Pune, the seat of the Peshwas, who are known for their rigid adherence to caste rituals. Though the book does not describe Pune the city, the constricted nature of society there, with everyone knowing one another, comes across clearly. Every step the characters take becomes public knowledge. Pune did not then provide any alternative space where one could live anonymously. Mumbai, where part of the novel is set, provided that anonymity even then, as it does today.
This story about a woman’s struggle to live on her own terms a century ago would have been engaging enough by itself. The knotty issues she had to deal with while doing so, all of them still very much prevalent, would have only made it more relatable.
After all, can anything resonate more with women today than the statement: “These so-called social customs that women are supposed to live by, have been made by middle and upper-class men on whom women and children are dependent.... But society has never given a thought to the rules and customs that should govern financially independent women.”
The same character who says this also pronounces the following revolutionary idea: “A woman who bears a child out of wedlock is not automatically a sinner. Unwed motherhood has been condemned because a woman who lives with a man out of wedlock does not have rights over the man’s property. Nor do their progeny. So the basis of this morality is money.” This is said not by a communist but a Brahmin scholar who is convinced that only Brahmins can change the rules set by them.
But what makes the reader not just enjoy the read but also pause and think is the author’s clear-eyed, cold analysis of the motives behind the tenderest of impulses, the most sacred of relationships. At times, his cynicism jars. While Ketkar’s observations are valid, the terms used for them make one uneasy: “The value of educated women had depreciated... because the supply of high-caste educated women had soared.’’
- Kalindi, Shanta Gokhale’s brilliant translation of Shridhar V. Ketkar’s original Brahmankanya, with its thought-provoking content and racy style takes one’s breath away.
- The questions it discusses—the grip that caste has over you how much ever you may try to break away, the unequal status of men and women in a relationship—are relevant even today.
- The book shows that it was common then for women born out of wedlock, or with mixed caste backgrounds, to cohabit with Brahmins or wealthy merchants as mistresses.
There is one major drawback from which the book suffers: the endless arguments between the characters. There is just too much talk. Long discussions on caste and marriage between two middle-aged men wanting to find a solution to these complex issues is understandable. But even young couples spend all their time arguing and discussing. You appreciate the wit and repartee, but it also makes you weary.
Romantic relationships are an important part of the story and the feelings behind them are discussed threadbare, yet, there is not a word about physical desire. One wonders why. The translator Shanta Gokhale writes in her foreword that she edited out three long sections from the original which she felt were digressions. One must thank her for that.
One notable and surprising omission in the novel, considering the author’s focus on women’s struggles and rights, is the lack of space given to the predicament of the wife whose husband takes a mistress. The reasons for men taking mistresses is explained, but what did it do to the wives? All that is said is that the husbands never left them; they could discard any pretences with them unlike with mistresses, and at times even appreciate them. That is hardly enough.
A revealing aspect in the novel is a glimpse it provides of the textile labour unions in Mumbai. We knew it in our hearts, but the novel makes clear the sad reality that the Congress was on the side of the rapacious and exploitative mill owners. Interestingly, the owners try to co-opt the young communist trade union leader, a tactic used successfully even today.
Another interesting sidelight is the little known dilemma of Jews in Maharashtra. While one was aware that Jews have always lived in Maharashtra, and contributed to public institutions in Mumbai, it comes as a revelation that the small community was torn apart by the dilemma of whether to consider themselves Maharashtrians or part of the Jewish community worldwide.
For non-Marathi-speaking readers, more so women and those interested in the evolution of women’s rights, this book is invaluable. It provides a window to social life in “progressive” Maharashtra. At one point, Kalindi’s brother describes Maharashtrian society thus: “Maharashtra would still remain a society full of caste discrimination, exclusion, contempt, and ostracism.’’
Has this changed? Is marriage between a Brahmin and a “lower caste” person accepted as commonplace? Does caste not continue to colour our relationships, as the suicide of IIT Bombay’s freshman Darshan Solanki and its shallow analysis by the college management show?
One thing has surely changed, though. The quest for a utopian society is no longer undertaken by individual idealists as it is in the novel. The dream of a society where relationships are not governed by the suffocating stranglehold of caste is now part of the Constitution and inspires vast sections of people. That it has not been achieved may have surprised Shridhar V. Ketkar, who lived an unconventional life in Pune, married to a German Jew. Or then, given his cynicism, it may not have.
Jyoti Punwani is a Mumbai-based freelance journalist.