My Dadi, Me and Shivani’s ‘Bhairavi’

It has not always been easy for me to have a conversation with my 87-year-old Dadi. Even if one ignores the vastly different worldviews we inhabit, I find it difficult to get over the nagging dislike I feel for her.

My Dadi is not a particularly bad person, but my opinion of her is coloured by my mother’s resentment. And I don’t think it is wrong on my mother’s part to hold the opinions she does.

The well-oiled machinations of a setup that has been using the bonds of the heteronormative family to weaponise sons against daughters-in-law and children against paternal grandparents are all too familiar. No one is blameless, but some can be blamed a bit more than others. As a 36-year-old woman, while I can have a more nuanced approach to my mother’s relationship with my Dadi, I like holding on to the dislike I feel for the latter. It is comforting in its familiarity and I do not wish to let go of it.

I know that even if I tried, I would only be disappointed. I would expect her to notice my effort to be warmer towards her, be eternally grateful for it and return it with the warmth and fervour that the setup has trained one to expect from grandmothers. She will not do this. While the woman in me respects that, the grandchild resents it.

Recently though, we found ourselves on rare common ground. I had been reading Priyanka Sarkar’s translation of Shivani’s Bhairavi. As it turned out, Gauri Pant, who is better known as Shivani, was one of my Dadi’s favourite authors – and one that she still likes to reread often.

Gaura Pant aka Shivani
Translated by Priyanka Sarkar
Yoda Press (2020)

If Sarkar had not made the choice to translate Shivani’s novel, I would have probably never read her works. After reading Bhairavi, I wanted to read more, so I also read Surangma and the short story Laal Haveli. While I was fascinated by the construction of Kumaoni society and the very palpable worlds that Shivani creates where you can almost taste, smell and feel the world inhabited by her characters, I did find the gender politics of her works particularly outdated.

Sarkar herself highlights this in the Preface to Bhairavi, “There are certain issues that will be bothersome for a 21st-century reader.” This includes the equation of the idea of beauty with fairness, which is in turn supposed to be a reflection of the moral purity of the female protagonists. The women who transgress are often punished, but then so are women who do not transgress. In general, I was a little irked by the eternal suffering of the women characters, which for the most part they bear stolidly. The narrative then constructs this as the virtuous way.

When my Dadi saw me reading a copy of Bhairavi, she and I started talking about it. I told her that I felt that most of the women characters in Shivani’s works were ‘daba-kuchla’; that they were too oppressed. My Dadi had a very different take on this. She attributed far more agency to them than I was willing to. While she did say that the women characters were unfortunate and suffered because of the choices they made, the blame for this was on the conservative society they lived in.

The emphasis on caste purity in Kumaoni society led to many unfortunate situations where women were forced into loveless and abusive marriages, like Rajrajeshwari was in Bhairavi. She also quickly pointed out that Surangma, in the eponymous novel, was an independent woman who worked for her living, and even as Surangma’s mother suffered because she eloped with a man who turned out to be abusive, part of the reason for her transgression was the cloistered environment in which she had been brought up.

Also read: Fighting My Grandmother’s Battles

Nonetheless, this woman also earned and worked through her life, even as she was trapped in a bad marriage, thus gaining superiority over her husband who increasingly receded into the background. She was defending Shivani’s writing according to the same modalities that I was judging her – our contemporary reality, which was a little removed from the world that Shivani’s characters inhabited. Both of us agreed that this was possibly a little unfair.

My Dadi also emphasised on how Shivani’s novels captured the personal. She was disdainful of works like Srilal Shukla’s Raag Darbari and Kashinath Singh’s Kashi ka Assi, and even Gyanendra Pandey’s Barahmaasi. These were too ‘rajnaitik’ (political) and ‘samajik’ (social) for her, not to mention the language was utterly to her dislike as it was full of expletives.

Shivani’s language, on the other hand, was chaste, almost Sanskritic. I could not help but muse that this was quite like her women characters. If Dadi noticed the mockery in my tone, she ignored it.

While Shivani’s works are largely populated by women, with the male characters being mostly violent or inept, my Dadi spoke very fondly of two male characters – the ‘gora’ (Robert Mury) from Surangma, and Tahira’s husband, Rehman Ali, from the short story Laal Haveli. These are both extremely gentle and caring men, and I must say that even I was quite taken in by Robert Mury. My grandmother spoke of them as examples of what men ought to be like. I wonder what desires and regrets were buried behind that statement. While I also admitted that both these characters were endearing, they were also a tad bit unreal and flat.

Virtue in Shivani’s works makes for extremely flat characters, and this holds true for both men and women. Yet, complexity and nuance slips into the stories through the subtext. In Bhairavi, that subtext is desire, and it is explored through the mist of marijuana smoke; forests; and caves in which the aghoris (ascetic saints) dwell. Quite like the paintings made by Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre in the eponymous novel, the slippages in Shivani’s works are redolent with possibilities. I believe this is what led Sarkar, the translator of Bhairavi, to imagine the fanfic version of the novel as a BDSM orgiastic treat. While talking to my Dadi about Shivani’s works I did not ask her whether she noticed this subtext. I am fainthearted like that.

Sarkar’s translation brought Shivani into my world, and discussing Shivani and Bhairavi with my Dadi gave me a brief glimpse into the world she must have inhabited as a reader, and a woman who had been once young but whose choices had been very different from the ones her granddaughter can make today.

Both Surangma and Bhairavi are about mothers and daughters. Sarkar got interested in Shivani’s work as a teenager when her mother shoved a copy of Surangma in her hands, to keep her restless teenage daughter occupied during the summer break. Ira and Mrinal Pande let Sarkar translate their beloved mother’s works. And serendipitously, my Dadi, who happens to live in the same housing complex as Ira Pandey, Shivani’s daughter, one day started a conversation with the latter quite by chance. On finding out about my Dadi’s interest in Shivani, which is not surprising for any one who was alive and reading Hindi literature in the 60s and 70s, Pande lent her a copy of Diddi: My Mother’s Voice, the book she wrote about her mother a few years after Shivani’s death.

This network of women and mothers and daughters that in many ways is an extension of the dynamics explored in Shivani’s novels, allowed me to share a few moments with my Dadi where past recriminations were forgotten, and the readers were united in their love for the stories and the characters.

Saumya Agarwal is a research scholar and her area of study are the wall paintings of Shekhawati

Featured image credit: Pariplab Chakraborty