Saeeda Ke Ghar


By Gauri Datt. Translated and Annotated with an
Introduction by Smita Gandotra and Ulrike Stark
Primus Books, 2022

Devrani Jethani ki Kahani, first published in 1870, is often hailed as the first novel in Hindi, and this critical edition, with the first-ever translation into English as A Story of Two Sisters-in-Law, takes full cognizance of the book’s historical significance to bring it to a contemporary reader in all its layered complexity. The
family saga marks a tryst with modernity against the backdrop of the colonial encounter, while offering a realist/reformist representation of the textures of AgarwalBaniya community life around the Meerut region in the 1860s. The story is simple and tersely told (just under 60 pages in translation) and revolves around Lala Sarvasukh and his family’s fortunes. Looking beyond the traditional trade that is his legacy, he gives his younger son Chotelal an education in English, and proceeds to acquire as daugher-in-law the literate Anandi who sets new standards of female accomplishment within the domestic space of the joint family. From her living room setting an example of new and refined tastes, to her capabilities as mentor and mother, she is idealized, not least as life partner for Chotelal, with whom she spends joyful private hours reading newspapers and discussing matters of import in perhaps one
of the first representations of a companionate marriage in Hindi fiction. In contrast, there is her elder sister-in-law: the unlettered and
ironically named Gyano depicted as foulmouthed, inept, and rather unsubtly, utterly wicked. In valorizing the literate daughterin-law as also the more virtuous human being, the novel takes a leap into the moral that comprehensively celebrates literacy
and urbanity at the cost of the rustic. The sisters-in-law and their feud, resulting in the  splitting of the family, occupies the plot, rendering Lala Sarvasukh’s name some what ironic in retrospect. In the minutely depicted textures of domestic life, including the use of the colloquial mode and community-specific rituals surrounding marriage and death and everything in-between, it also serves as social history. 

When two academics collaborate—Smita Gandotra teaches English at St. Stephen’s College while Ulrike Stark teaches at the University of Chicago’s Department of South Asian Languages and Civilizations— one expects the kind of scholarly framing of the book for pedagogical purposes that the Introduction provides. But one gets more: such as the facsimile reproduction of the original book by Pandit Gauri Datt (1837-1906), complete with the original illustrations, in colour. This adds a welcome touch of the archive, giving access to the story exactly as it appeared to its original audience, something often lost in reprints. The title page announces proudly that the book ‘has been awarded a cash prize of Rs. 100 by His Excellency the Lieutenant Governor Bahadur of the North-Western Provinces.’ The editors provide the context: the book was written in response to the provincial government in Allahabad inviting
‘useful’ works in Hindi, declaring that ‘Books suitable for the women of India will be especially acceptable, and well rewarded.’ But the histories within which
this book can be located go beyond colonial/ statist reformist ideals of a new femininity to encompass the encounter of colonial ethnography with native anxieties about preserving their (often caste-based) identities, as well as the language debate in North India, in which Gauri Datt was a noted player as a votary of the claims of Hindi and the Nagari script. The work both shapes and reflects the emergence of the Hindi language and the genre of the Hindi novel. Linguistically, Gauri Datt maintains a careful verisimilitude vis-à-vis the spoken language of women of the Agarwal community: ‘It is clear that women like to speak in their own idiom, and so do men…
Therefore in this book, I have adopted the colloquial speech of women, using their own words…I did not write in the style of books that are full of Sanskrit words, because no one reads or listens to them attentively’ (Author’s ‘Preface’, p. 73). As the editors point out in their critically engaged Introduction, this ‘insider-outsider’ Meerut-born Saraswat Brahmin portraying the fortunes of a Baniya family from the same region, also legitimizes the claims of Khadi Boli via the character of Anandi, the idealized bahu and devrani of the title. This ‘entirely new kind of story’ is meant to be many things, then: it is a conduct book for a new ideal of the merchant and the domestic woman, advocating such causes as female literacy, a higher age for marriage, and lower expenditure in rituals and ceremonies. But alongside the reformist of a bygone age:
Ghar khandhar hote gaye
Log shahar aate rahe
Muhallon mein shaadiyan hotee raheen
Chunaavon kee charcha
jaree rahee
aur maan
Intezaar hee kartee rahee. (‘Maan Intezaar
Hee Kartee Rahee’)

(Homes turned ruins, people kept going to the towns. Weddings took place in the
streets, talk of elections went on, and mother waited and waited).

However, what I found stunning were poems with distinctly spiritual overtones in the tradition of Urdu/Rekhta masters. Inparticular ‘Tum Kahan Naheen Ho’ is almost a contemporary hymn:
Mitti kee khushboo mein, Panee kee seelan
Janvary kee sardee mein, Joon kee garmee
Itvaar kee chuttee mein, Somvaar kee daud
Dopahar ke kaaj mein, Raat kee neend
Tum kahan naheen ho!

(In the perfume of the earth, in the dampness of water, in the January cold, in the June heat, in the holiday of Sunday, in the race on Monday, in the chores of
the noon, in the sleep of night, You are Omnipresent!)
The last lines of the poem:
‘Tum ho hee ho, Tum hee to ho’ (You are, no one but You)
are the triumphant cry of the true
believer. Reassuring. And somehow, so
relevant, so in consonance with our times.

Saeeda Ke Ghar is an anthology that
calls for contemplation. Here are some fine poems that are bound to stay with the reader
and find echoes in her life.
Madhu B Joshi prefers to be known as acommunication practitioner.