The rediscovery of Ekakini, an iconic Hindi work

Hindi literary circles are all agog as the first lesbian novel, from 1948, is republished.

Published : Jan 31, 2023 17:31 IST

The cover of Ekakini.

The cover of Ekakini.

If the first Urdu short story with clear hints of a lesbian relationship was written in 1941 (Ismat Chughtai’s controversial and celebrated story Lihaaf), Hindi literature saw its first full-fledged lesbian novel in 1948. Written by Asha Sahay, Ekakini (Recluse) did not leave much to the reader’s imagination as Lihaaf had, and offered excellent realistic and empathetically drawn psychological profiles of women who had chosen to enter such relationships.

In those times, it was nothing short of a revolutionary move on the part of the novelist, and it was even more significant that Shivpujan Sahay, an elderly and highly regarded litterateur from Bihar, wrote a Preface to the novel and lauded the “novelty” of its theme as well as its “uniqueness”.

Unearthing the novel

Sudha Singh, a senior professor in Delhi University’s Hindi Department and well-known interlocutor in the ongoing gender discourse in Hindi literature, views it as an important “historical-ideological phenomenon”. It was Sudha Singh who,through conscientiously painstaking research, unearthed the novel that had gone off the literary map for several decades and most people were ignorant of its existence.

The book had been out of print and circulation for many decades. Its republication in December 2022 has opened new vistas of, and added new dimensions to, the gender discourse in the Hindi literary world as it makes available the “lived experience” of a woman writer in a pristinely authentic form.

In a scholarly Foreword, Jagadishwar Chaturvedi, who retired as professor and head of Calcutta University’s Hindi department a few years ago, underlines the fact that the meaning and connotations of the word ‘lesbian’ have been evolving and changing over time and that it should not be confused with merely sexual relations between two women.

He also brings into sharp relief the similarities as well as differences between Begum Jan of Lihaaf and Kala of Ekakini and opines that while both of them rebel against the well-entrenched values and system of patriarchy, Begum Jan’s rebellion remains confined to the sexual aspect of a lesbian relationship.

She is a married woman in her early forties who takes recourse to such an unconventional relationship because her aristocratic husband hardly takes any interest in her as he is himself a homosexual only interested in young boys. Contrary to this, Kala is an unmarried young woman who feels physically as well as emotionally attracted to her childhood friend Arati, who eventually gets married but later renounces the world and becomes a sanyasini.

While the narrator in Lihaaf is a very young girl who does not understand what she saw and described, Kala and Arati are grown up women who understand the social implications of their decision and its potential to undermine patriarchy, as it is a bold assertion of their autonomy as individuals and as women.

Against patriarchy

Their conversations in the novel make their emotional and ideological stance amply clear and the reader is left in no doubt that they are first and foremost attached to each other on the emotional plane and the physical aspect of their relationship is of much less importance to them.

As pointed out by Chaturvedi, Asha Sahay does not give any importance to the taboo associated with a lesbian relationship owing to which such relationships are viewed as “sinful”.

Through her portrayal of Kala, she expresses an uncompromising attitude towards male dominance and patriarchal hegemony. Kala boldly speaks against a woman’s dependence on man in any manner. She also demands that women be treated as human beings and not as goddesses.

Kala and Arati love each other since their childhood. Their love does have a sexual dimension but it is just a dimension. It has the same emotional intensity as one would find in a love relationship between a man and a woman.

The novel, brought out by Academic Publication, Delhi, carries the full Introduction written by Shivpujan Sahay. This is also a document of considerable historical value as it shows how a Gandhian, active in literature and politics in the conservative social and ideological environment of Bihar, skilfully performed the tightrope walk of praising the novel without ruffling society’s feathers.

He appreciated the novel’s literary style and its uniqueness without commenting on its unconventional content.

The republication of Ekakini is a watershed for Hindi literature as well as for the gender discourse that has been going among creative writers and critics for several decades. In the past few decades, the gender discourse has acquired a measure of urgency as well as poignancy as gender issues have been gaining in importance and significance in the social and political spheres. One hopes that Hindi researchers will continue to bright to light such lost treasures of our literary heritage.

Kuldeep Kumar is a senior journalist who writes on politics and culture.

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