In Bhairavi, Shivani’s thundering response to the patriarchy is also a mirror to selective activism

Aarushi Agrawal
·10-min read

With a house and four children to look after, prolific Hindi writer Gaura Pant, or Shivani, didn't have the time for authorly pretensions or indulgences. She sourced stationery from the children's school supplies, using old notebooks to pen down first drafts, writing in longhand, and sending the finished manuscript off to her editor in a registered envelope. Writing in the 1960s and 70s, she filled the empty pages of these notebooks with stories revolving primarily around strong female protagonists navigating life in a deeply patriarchal Indian society. And as happens in real life, a part of these characters' lives focuses on a love interest. But for this reason, although popular, Shivani was never afforded the respect of a space in the Hindi canon. "The literary writers saw her as this woman who's writing love stories," says Priyanka Sarkar, who has recently translated the author's novel Bhairavi: The Runaway into English. "I don't think any of her stories are love stories. They are about women navigating the world and the labyrinth social structures."

Bhairavi, serialised in the popular Hindi weekly Saptahik Hindustan and published in 1978, follows the extraordinarily beautiful Chandan, who has just woken up in a dark cave deep inside an ancient forest. Surrounded by Aghori sadhus, she soon settles into life around the nearby cremation ground, the novel serving as an excellent instance of gothic writing within the Indian context. For Sarkar, entirely apart from this world, translating it was primarily an exercise in imagination. At every point, she focuses on Shivani's descriptive writing, visually rooted in the local culture and filled with metaphors that aid the imagery, essentially understanding the essence of what the author is saying. "It was very important for me to get that flavour of the language. So first [I would] understand what she is saying, try to picture it, and then explain it in English."

The opening line of the novel, for instance, expertly sets the stage for a story as dramatic as Bhairavi to unfold:

Aakash ki neelima maano uss aranya ko cheerthee hui jhapaate se neechay uthar aayee thee

which Sarkar translates to

"It seemed as if the blue of the sky had ripped through the jungle to touch the earth."

Other startling images include "The sweet smile on that large mouth travelled up her sharp nose and adorned her huge eyes as if with kohl," and "The fire of a pyre in the distance was shaking hands with the setting sun".

While this gothic world the novel so viscerally evokes is alien for several readers today, it was part of Shivani's everyday life at her marital home in the Kumaoni hills. "In the hills there is a long custom of naatpanti sadhus, Aghori sadhus, and other divine sects coming to the Himalayas. And because they connect themselves to Shiva, they all smoke hemp and take drugs. It was a natural thing, 'Shiva ke bhakt hai'," recalls writer and journalist, and one of Shivani's three daughters, Mrinal Pande. Among the domestic help in their own employment was Vishandas, who milked the cow at her aunt's house. Each evening, they would find him outside, banging on a drum and singing songs with the sadhus he had met. These roaming sadhus would also knock on their door, and abrasively say "alak mai khaana khilao," demanding food of Shivani. "So it was a strange, gothic life that we led actually," says Pande.

Although surrounded by a certain sense of mystery and lore, Shivani and her family lived firmly within the bounds of a conservative Hindu household. And about 50 pages into the novel, a flashback takes readers away from the absolute freedom of the forest and back into mainstream society, where one finds Chandan trying to negotiate an altogether different labyrinth.

"On the other hand, her mother was independent despite being a widow. She had embraced widowhood and overcome it. She had defeated it," thinks Chandan about her mother Rajrajeshwari, after hearing her Chachi's taunts: "Your poor Nana! I heard that he jumped into an abyss and killed himself. Your Nani also took her own life. They couldn't show their faces in society because of your mother's ill repute." After a clandestine youthful affair and unsuccessful elopement that sullies the family name, the young, beautiful Rajrajeshwari is married off to a widower who keeps her locked in a room, spits in her food as a test of her loyalty, and questions whether the child she has borne is his, before finally passing away. She then inherits the large haveli, most of which she donates to open a girl's school, educates and establishes herself as a respectable teacher, and brings up her daughter Chandan.

These bitter family taunts about their self-sufficient mother were also the lived experience of Shivani's daughters. "You see Indian families are kind of schizophrenic when it comes to sibling love. There is a great deal of rivalry," says Pande about the relationship Shivani shared with her siblings. One of three among nine siblings sent to Tagore's Santiniketan for schooling, Shivani was a well-rounded star student, excelling at studies, serving as secretary of the Student Union, and captaining the hockey team. "So I found that they [Shivani's remaining siblings] were sarcastic about her intellectual achievements and played up her domestic dishevelment." Ignoring the fact that Shivani was bringing up four children whilst writing to make a living, the relatives focused their efforts instead on pointing out the yellowness that always tinted Shivani's petticoats, her sometimes burnt parathas or shabbily cut sandwich crusts, the tins in her pantry that remained unlabelled, and so on.

This cultural atmosphere was something Shivani had to face from the first day of her marriage, transitioning as she was from Santiniketan's liberal environment in Bengal to the conservatism of the Kumaon hills. As a new bride, the older women of the family felt that she must present proof of being an adept homemaker, asking her to grind some udat daal (black gram). Shivani, who hadn't yet done a day's cooking and had brought a cook along, sat there crying at the grinding stone, until the cook jumped in through the window to help her. "It was a big joke in the family, she made a joke of it for us to be able to accept it. But I think it must have been horrible for a 20-year-old girl straight out of the refinement of Santiniketan to be asked to grind the daal," says Pande. "When we were growing up, not a speck of my mother's Santiniketan upbringing or past was allowed to exist in the house because that was quite subversive," she adds.

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In many ways, however, it's a conservatism that's amply evident in Bhairavi. When tackling a book that hasn't aged well, engaging with it seems more useful to this writer than simply not reading and writing about it. Fiction allows one the space and detachment to assess a way of thinking that is so widespread in society that, in real life, one simply doesn't have the option to turn away from it and pretend it doesn't exist. "That kind of erasure is always counterproductive," asserts Sarkar. "I think that is a very reductive way of looking at literature."

Reading Bhairavi today meant empathising with the characters while recognising that they are also part of the problems we face in Indian society today. While the women struggle within the confines of a stifling patriarchy, it's their fairness (which equals to) and beauty that makes them worthy of being empathised with. And while the book passionately rails against a patriarchy that considers women inferior, it proudly holds up a casteist inequality that considers everyone who is not 'Brahmin' inferior. It also peddles the baffling caricatures of Western attired women who live outside the country being deplorable lost causes while the saree-wearing heroine is wise, respectable, and able to carry herself with dignity. This story then, for me, is as much about deeply problematic mindsets as it is about strong women negotiating the world.

It's a world that they can't escape, wherever they go. Like Shivani's own life, cultural shifts also bring about intense changes for both Chandan and Rajrajeshwari, although after the shifts, Shivani allots them much darker futures. While Rajrajeshwari's torment €" "The more the suspicious man tried to oppress her, the more she would get oppressed" €" is short-lived, and as a strong-willed widow, she grows back into her spirited self, Shivani allots Chandan an excessively drastic turn.

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Every major decision in Chandan's life is dictated by her astounding beauty. She grows up under the strict vigil of an overbearing mother and is eventually married off to a boy impressed by her looks, with whom she experiences the early days of marital bliss. Then on a fateful train journey, the couple is joined in their berth by a group of men who, seeing her beauty, soon start harassing her. She sees her husband being tied up and wonders, "will she ever be able to show her besmirched face to him" and deciding that she wouldn't, that her fate was sealed and death the only escape, she jumps out the door of the speeding train. This is where Bhairavi opens, with Chandan waking up in the cave, having first landed in a cremation ground full of Aghori sadhus, ruing that fact that even death had evaded her. A year later, she is forced to escape again as the actions of the Guru who had rescued her reveal his ill intentions, swayed off his religious path by her beauty. She is then turned away from a Vaishnavi akhada because of the threat this beauty might present to the piousness of the gurus there; finds her husband has remarried and has a child, and has nowhere left to go.

"I think part of her ire about a young girl being suddenly thrown amidst completely, truly shit [circumstances] is an exaggeration of her own [experiences]. This mother and daughter have kind of been exiled into that area, and this was because she herself was an outsider to the core Kumaoni culture. So she sees it through the eyes of an outsider who is also an insider made outsider by circumstances," says Pande. "And she was quite horrified by some of the conservatism she saw, especially the attitudes toward women. In those days, in conservative families, the only thing a girl was destined for was marriage," she adds.

In Bhairavi, ruthlessly, Shivani points out the certain tragedy that awaits a young girl on the cusp of marriage, in a patriarchal society.

"Either she just wraps up her better senses and becomes an obedient little wife and toast of the sanathani society or like Chandan she suddenly breaks out of it because she is not fit for a sanathani conservative family and she doesn't know where to go. Her intelligence and her education make her unfit for the prevailing norm. And this is a dilemma that I find still exists in India, in different, more sophisticated forms," explains Pande. While earlier readings differed, when Pande rereads the book now, her takeaway lingers around a larger question: "Even if she [Chandan] had not fallen among the Aghoris, suppose she had married in the conservative Kumaoni Brahmin family like Shivani herself did, would she be any happier?"

Bhairavi by Shivani, translated by Priyanka Sarkar, is jointly published by Simon & Schuster India and Yoda Press

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