Book Review by Somdatta Mandal
Title: Yamuna’s Journey
Author: Baba Padmanji, Translator: Deepra Dandekar
Publisher: Speaking Tiger Books
During the nineteenth century, among the various social concerns that plagued Indian society, three issues were greatly significant — the abolition of sati, or the burning of the widow on the pyre of her dead husband, the passing of the widow-remarriage bill by the British-Indian Parliament in 1856 augmented by the activism of reformers like Pandit Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, and of course the attempts at conversion to Christianity of people plagued, tortured and humiliated by the rigid strictures of class hierarchy and torture and humiliation imposed by Brahminical society during that period.
Baba Padmanji’s 1857 Marathi novel, Yamunaparyatan (translated as Yamuna’s Journey), is the first vernacular novel in India meant to provide a realistic account of the travails suffered by Hindu widows in Bombay Presidency region in particular and India in general and is based on empirical facts. It highlights the suffering of Hindu widows, forced into a life of loneliness and torture by their cruel Brahminical families. The heroine of the novel, Yamuna, starts off as a happily married woman, sharing a bond of mutual trust and respect with her husband. She travels with him across various regions of the Bombay Presidency and Western India and her interactions with widows on the way reveal the extent of their suffering within Hindu patriarchal and Brahminical society. Yamuna sympathises with them and calls for urgent reform, while advocating for widow remarriage.
Based on empirical research, and its main storyline composed of empirical anecdotes which were woven together in a single narrative, Yamunaparyatan was only written in the form of a novel. From the very beginning it was never meant to be a poetic, aesthetic book, and was always meant to be hard-hitting, and a realistic treatise. Deeply influenced by Rev. Surendra Nath Banerjea and his writings on women’s education and emancipation, Padmanji described the piteous situation of those young girls who were married off hastily as children to men decades older than themselves. Squeezed between marital duties, childbirth, and heavy domestic work, young girls became victims of their marital families. After their husbands died, they were subjected to further torture – tonsure, inadequate food and clothing, ill-treatment, a heavier than ever workload, and no creature comforts whatsoever. Padmanji argued that women within Brahminical families were constantly on the brink of abandonment and destitution, suffering deeply from the fear of becoming outcasts, even before they became widows.
When tragedy strikes and Yamuna is widowed, she too is tortured and stigmatised. But the feisty young woman manages to start a new chapter in life by converting to Christianity and remarrying a Christian man. In the last chapter of the novel, we are told how Yamuna-bai’s grief diminished gradually as she found solace in religion:
“After some time, God introduced her to an educated and religious young man, who became a loving and caring husband to her. With time, Yamuna dedicated herself to her new life companion and the couple thereafter spent the rest of their years in happiness, helping others and praising God.”
As mentioned earlier, Baba Padmanji was fiercely critical of the stigma accorded to widows within Brahmanical Hinduism and fought against it tooth and nail. In fact, one of the most enduring legacies of Yamunaparyatan is its portrayal of equal, romantic, conjugal partnerships, depicted between spouses of the same age, who shared religious, intellectual, emotional and moral proclivities and insights; spouses who were constantly in conversation and discussion with each other. Yamuna was not her husband’s junior, and their relationship constituted an ideal example of conjugal marital relationships for young, educated and reformed readers. This equality between spouses was something unimaginable in Hindu society of the time and one of Padmanji’s greatest anxieties was concerned with the hesitation of the educated and the reformed youth in taking the step to remarry widows. In fact, one of the book’s junior protagonists even outlines an evolved idea of running an organised, crowd funded, social movement in favour of widow remarriage. Padmanji even articulated the promise of happiness that reformed marriages held out for couples who could live together with social awareness, even if the women were widowed.
Apart from the proselytising mission by Baba Padmanji who himself converted to Christianity a few years earlier and thought it his duty to preach about its merits, especially the way women were respected in that religion, the novel is rather weak in structure. For instance, the last chapter begins in the following manner:
“The time has come for us to end the story and for our readers to finally know what the future held for Yamuna, Shivram, and his mother as the seeds of divine scripture sown in their hearts came to fruition.”
Labelled as the first of its kind in Indian literature, the novel’s weaknesses can of course be overlooked. It is true that the novel form in India was in its nascent stage at the time of composition of this text. The first vernacular novel in India was Fulmoni O Korunar Bibaran ( Fulmoni’s and Karuna’s Account) by Hanna Catherine Mullens published by the Calcutta Christian Tract and Book Society in 1852 and this Bengali book had its aim clearly mentioned in the subtitle –“Written for the purpose of educating women.” But since the author was not Indian by birth, the credit for being the first Indian author to pen a novel remains with Padmanji. It was about a decade later that writers like Bankim Chandra Chatterjee would gradually popularise the genre.
What makes Yamuna’s Journey special even today is the bold feminist ideas expressed in the novel, and though it was published more than a hundred and fifty years earlier, one still feels the currency of the feminist issues that Padmanji had raised. When we read about the deplorable condition of Hindu widows in religious places like Varanasi and Vrindaban even today, we realise that the vice has not been eradicated from Hindu society even in this twenty-first century. Not focusing particularly on the plight of lower-caste Hindus, Padmanji instead criticised middle-class Hindus (like the goldsmith caste, or Prabhus) for ritually aligning with Brahmins. The solution for him thus lay, not in focusing on lower-caste emancipation, but in strongly divesting Brahmins and Brahminism of demographic support, singling them out, and subjecting them to legal measures, social activism, and compulsory re-education. If Hindu society was bent on self-destruction by eliminating its women, then Padmanji felt that they had no right to be offended if these same women converted and lived respectful lives thereafter, as part of the Christian community that accorded them equality and dignity. Thus, reading the translation of this Marathi text, despite its proselytising tone and weak narrative structure, one still feels it to be rather significant.
Deepra Dandekar has done yeoman service by translating this vernacular Marathi text into English for a pan-Indian readership. In the note for the readers, she tells us how readability in the 21st century becomes the primary concern for her translation. Though she has kept Padmanji’s arguments intact, she has in other places paraphrased and desisted from providing verbatim translations, especially when Padmanji quotes Sanskrit passages or older Marathi religious texts. Since these verbatim translations do not add special meaning to the storyline, she has simplified the text in places, though she has also striven not to render it too simplistic. Dandekar also admits that in keeping with Padmanji’s aim of writing a fledgling romantic novel, she has desisted from making the text too academic. By avoiding footnotes, she has provided a glossary in the end that explains the meaning of vernacular words in context. So, Yamuna’s Journey is recommended for readers of all categories – those who want to study it as the first vernacular novel in India; those who want to know more about the larger debates concerning widow remarriage in the years 1856 and 1857; and those who want to read it as a feminist text propagating the drawbacks of Hindu contemporary society with its rigid class structures and embracing Christianity as a remedy to all social evils of the time.
Somdatta Mandal, critic and translator, is a Former Professor of English at Visva-Bharati, Santiniketan, India.
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