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Literature on feminism

Arunlekha Sen |

Late politician and writer Rani Lakshmi Kumari Chundawat&’s autobiography, From Purdah to the People and collection of stories, Love Stories of Rajasthan, translated from Hindi to English by Kanchan Mathur, are but two beautiful books from the large collection of books by her in Hindi and Rajasthani. One of Rani Lakshmi&’s granddaughters was in college with me, and remains one of my closest friends. In fact, it was for her marriage that I went to Jaipur for the first time in my life. Her grandmother Rani Lakshmi, was a vivid person in our conversations even though she lived a quiet retired life in Jaipur, while we studied in Delhi. We chatted about her achievements in social work and State politics, and admired her dress sense and self-confidence. My friend and I were both painfully shy, and envied her self-assured outgoing nature.  We admired her collection of jackets and coats also, especially the long leopard print coat! 

 Rani Lakshmi was born in 1916 in Deogarh, a small kingdom near Udaipur, Rajasthan, in the traditional province of Mewar.  She was born in an era and place when girls did not go to school, and her province was stuck in the medieval period, in spite of the fact that the movement for India&’s independence was gaining ground. She never went to a formal school, but learned how to read and write from tutors who came home to teach her brother and her. Her brother went to Mayo College, Ajmer, like other Rajput princes of that time, at a late age of 16. But, she continued to read and learn at home, adding English to her curriculum. Her brother&’s English tutor sometimes came to her home to help with English lessons.  As you read her autobiography that she penned in her old age, you still feel the strong feeling of disappointment with life for not going to school as a child. I remembered the line from the novel White Tiger by Arvinda Adiga (2008): “No one remembers his school days more than the man who is pulled out of school after class 5”. 

Rani Lakshmi&’s yearning for studying in a school stayed with her all through her life.  I had tears in my eyes imagining how she must have wistfully looked down the dusty road as the cart taking her brother to Ajmer turned a corner and vanished. She must have sighed heavily and taken up her dear books again. Books are a balm for anguished hearts like nothing else.  All through her long and fascinating life, she continued to learn about new cultures, people&’s problems, governance, politics, art and dance with a keen interest, akin to that of a devoted student. Her very long list of published works in Hindi and Rajasthani are even more impressive when you remember their author was home-schooled and self-taught. Thus, she was married when girls are still in school, and she had babies one after the other and spent her youth nursing them and changing nappies. But, as she was a lucky princess with a large retinue of staffs in the feudal era, she escaped to her turret-study, and read and wrote. Like her hero, Tagore, she proved to the world that you cannot entrap the mind, and you do not need a school to be an accomplished scholar and writer, like Tagore himself was.

Rani Lakshmi&’s love for freedom pushed her out of the house, and she played and rode with her brothers, and because of her attachment with her brothers “used the masculine rather than the feminine gender when (she) spoke”, a fact that caused much merriment in the women&’s quarters or zenana  of Deogarh.

Deogarh, half way between Udaipur and Ajmer, was also home to extremely talented artists of miniature paintings.  It still draws many art enthusiasts and students. Thus, Rani Lakshmi was also drawn to painting, and she illustrated many historical events when she wrote about them. 

From Purdah to People is researched in great detail, and while it is an autobiography, Frances Taft, the editor, has shaped it into an invaluable treatise on social history of Rajasthan in the 20th century.  Customs of caste, slavery, and trafficking, keeping women out of sight, and thus, conveniently out of the social and political discourse, are described as parts of life that were a part of history and culture, but which need to be changed.  In Rani Lakshmi&’s and Indira Gandhi&’s time there certainly was an effort to change the way different societies behaved, and to give more rights and freedom to women, but, sadly, now we see misogyny and inter-group hatred becoming more and more hardline.  Keeping women out of the race and out of sight is justified in the name of  trahdeetion, as they pronounce it. The plight of the poor is shrugged off, and the poor are fenced out and kept invisible to the affluent eye. The so-called economic boom in India has left millions of people behind. Their miserable, sub-human existence means nothing to Rani Lakshmi&’s juniors in the political arena now. I laughed loudly to myself much to my daughter&’s surprise when I read that Rani Lakshmi was a self-confessed ‘certainly pink’ but not ‘red’. Pray, why not? Is there any other viable option but to be pro-poor in a country where absolute poverty is a reality staring at our insensitive faces?

While writing about her travels in Central Europe, Rani Lakshmi quite rightly points out how Rajasthan is a part of Central Asia and Europe. There are stray words, songs, fabrics and clothes that show how much there was inter-mixture and movement across the lands. The historical significance of certain words is crucial in understanding how present-day India evolved over the centuries.  She even went to Hungary to the same house where Tagore was a visitor, and where his chair is preserved in the museum!

In Love Stories of Rajasthan, Rani Lakshmi has written down in a proper story-form, 14 traditional fables of Rajasthan. Though many are widely quoted and sung even now, some are rare and not-much discussed in the present day. The original compilation in Hindi has been translated into English in this edition by former journalist Kanchan Mathur, who now lives in Jaipur, in   The Statesman.  The first story of Mumal is depicted with puppets in the Government museums in Jaisalmer and Jodhpur, and it is my favourite.  Each story is also a repository of history and social customs, and they are somewhat similar to Tagore&’s  Raj Kahini in the style of telling. Rani Lakshmi had been very influenced by Tagore&’s works. She had also translated some of his prose writing in an edition in Rajasthani  Ravi Thakur Ri Vatan (Rajasthan Sahitya Akademi, Udaipur, 1961). Each story is full of romance, valour and sacrifice, and you will find it impossible to leave it unfinished. Many locations and traditions in the stories still survive today. Some of the nomadic communities who are characters in the stories exist today. You can time the Hindu calendar months, seasons and festivals with their sudden appearance on the horizon of your village. They move with their animals, camp-beds and tents in orderly columns, and India&’s march towards economic and technological progress leaves them cold. The children never go to school and the women deliver babies and just keep walking.

It is a pity that both the books are not as well-publicised as they ought to be. Not only do they make for great, enjoyable reading, but they are also invaluable in their historical importance.  They are essential tools for scholars researching about Rajasthan.

Rani Lakshmi passed away a year ago in May 2014. She continued to help researchers, and inspire students to work in the Rajasthani language. I wish more students take up her mantle and continue to write in it and about Rajasthan that is a cradle of many cultures and peoples blending into a magical fabric. She was an early feminist without actually admitting it in public, and the heroines in the love stories made their own choices about whom to love, or whether to live or to die. Rani Lakshmi would have definitely demurred from declaring she was a feminist if anyone had cared to ask her. These are sadly unthinkable in today&’s Rajasthan.  Barring towns like Jaipur and Udaipur, the rest of Rajasthan is a place where women are mere slaves in the domestic set-up and baby-popping machines.  Killing off female foetuses is a daily affair. If the first child is a girl, you can bet on it that the second one will be a boy. The whole family’s honour depends on it. More than the actual misogyny and discrimination, what hurts the most is how the women have been so totally beaten to submission that they accept what is done to them, and will never even dream of questioning the cruelty.

(The reviewer is a freelance contributor)