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Beyond the Veil: A Book Review by Aruna Chakravarti

                                                                              

Title: Beyond the Veil

Author: Devika Khanna Narula

An important task for those committed to tracking the path of women’s Issues, past and present, is to embark on a study of the academic discourses on gender sparked off by feminist scholars and activists — an area that is fast gaining ground all over the world. Yet there is another dimension to the effort. It also involves an exploration of creative writing generated by sensitive, imaginative feminism. It is important to understand that concepts such as Patriarchy, Agency and Resistance are not limited to feminist debate and discourse. They are equally and dynamically present in poetry and fiction. In India, the field of feminist creative writing is growing rich with promise every day.

One such endeavour is Devika Khanna Narula’s novel Beyond the Veil.  A work of epical dimensions it operates on a vast canvas. Vast both in terms of space and time, it spans half a century, between 1900 and 1950. It offers interesting insights into life as lived by upper class and middle-class women during a momentous period of Indian history. A time when a mass resistance against British rule was spreading all over the country culminating in the independence of India. A movement in which some women also participated.

Spatially the narrative shuttles between two families from two different parts of India linked by marriage. They belong to different cultures though they come from a common stock. They are the Punjabis of Lahore and the Punjabi Khatris of Bandhugarh, a fictional name for Bardhaman, in West Bengal. The founder of the Kapoor family in Bandhugarh, came from Punjab in the sixteenth century and, by sheer dint of merit and hard work, amassed lands and wealth. His progeny followed in his footsteps, established themselves as zamindars and, at some point, were dignified by the title of Rajah by the British.

The Khannas of Punjab and the Kapoors of Bandhugarh seem very different in externals. The first belongs to the ‘small business’ class. The other is related to royalty. One is of pure Punjabi extraction. The other, though from the same genetic type, is highly Bengalised having lived in Bengal over many generations. They speak Bengali, eat Bengali food, dress like Bengalis, worship in Bengali temples and use idioms and expressions that serve to accentuate the effects of defamiliarization and alienness among the daughters-in-law who, in an effort to keep the bloodline pure, are brought from the old pristine stock.

These women face the challenges their upheaval brings in its wake. They are required to come to terms with another kind of life, learn to adapt to a new environment, cope with taunts about their dissimilarities and conquer their fears and insecurities. It works both ways. Roopmati, coming from Punjab has to turn herself into a Bengali in her marital home. Her daughter, brought up as a Bengali in Bandhugarh, is wed to a young man in Lahore and has to adapt to a different set of priorities and values for which she is totally unprepared.

Yet, scratch the surface and the fates of women, whether in Punjab or Bengal, are identical. Denial of education, economic dependence on the male, social conditioning over generations and the suppression of individual identity by an oppressive ‘joint family’ ideology are present across the spectrum. Humiliation and desertion by husbands, violence—physical and mental, molestation and rape both marital and by other males of the family are normalized and hidden from view. Adherence to tradition have rendered other horrors acceptable and inevitable. The custom of Sati and Purdah, female infanticide and neglect of the girl child are part of a patriarchal system that exists in both communities.

The strange thing is that the women who suffer these indignities, day in and day out, are the very ones who are entrusted with perpetuating the system. Males set the rules but females are expected to implement them. And many do. Mindlessly like automatons. Some even enjoy the process. Because this is the only area of dominance men have relegated to women. Women like Bebe of Bandhugarh and Rukmini of Lahore enjoy power through a determined subjugation of the younger women of the family, particularly the daughters-in-law. They also see it is as their duty to break the clay of the other and force it into the patriarchal family mould. 

The world in which the young women of Beyond the Veil live is cold and dark. But occasionally a shaft of sunlight pierces through the clouds. Some women upset the status quo from time to time. These are rebels who expect consideration and fair play. They demand change. The mother and daughter duo Roopmati and Maina are two such women. It is heartening to see that, under their influence, their husbands too develop sensitivity and compassion for the women in their households. Other males follow suit. The curtain falls on a world slowly waking from slumber.

The ambience of both worlds is created with great sensitivity and detail. Descriptions of food eaten, clothes worn, journeys undertaken and the joys and sorrows of day-to-day living are totally credible. The narrative flows smoothly unmarred by jolts and jars. The topography of Lahore, Karachi and Bandhugarh of those days is authentic and accurate. Life as it is lived in, whether it is the Khanna family or the Kapoor, the cultural differences come through with clarity and precision. Events and locales are rooted in history and dates are adhered to. Names of streets, restaurants, railway stations, cinema halls… even the films that were shown in them a century ago… can be put to the test and will not fail. Best of all are the local legends and myths that have grown around communities and families, rivers and lakes, temples and mansions. The book is a storehouse of information of a bye gone era.

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Aruna Chakravarti has been the principal of a prestigious women’s college of Delhi University for ten years. She is also a well-known academic, creative writer and translator with fourteen published books on record. Her novels JorasankoDaughters of JorasankoThe Inheritors have sold widely and received rave reviews. Suralakshmi Villa is her fifteenth book. She has also received awards such as the Vaitalik Award, Sahitya Akademi Award and Sarat Puraskar for her translations.

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

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