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The parallel worlds of Mridula Garg’s women

Mridula Garg steers clear of cliches about intimacy outside marriage in her 1979 Hindi novel ‘Chittacobra’—now out in English

Mridula Garg’s 1979 ‘Chittacobra’ has been translated into English.
Mridula Garg’s 1979 ‘Chittacobra’ has been translated into English. (Mridula Garg/Facebook)

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Be it Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary or Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, the desperate search for intimacy outside marriage has bewildered writers for long. While the reasons might be different—and unhappy, arranged marriages seem to be the most probable of them—writers have pointed often at the confining nature of a marriage, a counterpoint to the liberating, accepting aspect of love.

Through Chittacobra, a Hindi novel published in 1979 and just translated into English by Speaking Tiger Books, Mridula Garg reflects on similar questions. As the name signifies, our psyche, or chitta, shape-shifts like a cobra, its tongue forked with desires, slithering through the narrow strictures of social obligations and moral dilemmas.

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The novel unfolds as a series of reminiscences of a married woman, Manu, who falls for a married man, Richard, her drama partner and a Protestant missionary. Even when Manu seems to be a middle-class woman, trained to abide by traditionalist definitions of a woman and put up the facade of an ideal wife, her guilt-ridden love for Richard sets this novel apart from other novels in this genre.

Most Hindi novels use two tropes to justify the adultery of their protagonists—either showing us an alcoholic, abusive husband or an internal calling in the wife, borne out of guilt at being a home-wrecker, social conditioning or love for a child, taking precedence in the final sections of a story and preventing her from moving out of the marriage.

Garg steers clear of these cliched plot points. Mahesh, attuned to the ways of society, is a rather dull, mediocre husband who is stranger to Manu's deep sensitivity. Their relationship has care and companionship—a kind of stable, middling love that typifies most middle-class arranged marriages. Mahesh goes on to say that if marriage were to be based on love, the partners, too absorbed in love, would forget the banal yet more significant matters of society and country.

This brings us to our initial question of inquiry: whether the charm of love lies in the thrill of the chase, which, in itself, is a patriarchal construct based on desire. Even Manu’s answer to Richard on the prospect of marriage is quite telling in this regard: “Had you been my husband, you would’ve roamed around the world, and I would’ve taken care of your children… In fact, I would’ve fallen in love with Mahesh then.”

Garg creates two parallel worlds for Manu: one, with Richard, where Manu finds an expansion of self, allowing her to assume individuality. She wants to accompany him for relief work to Bangladesh, ponders upon the two faces of Parvati, and wonders if Christ was the world’s first communist. With Mahesh, her other world, mired in domesticity, comes across—she is busy counting the number of koftas needed for the entire family. It’s the world she wishes to escape.

The divide between these two worlds is intensified by the love-making scenes. Manu thinks of Richard as a baby suckling on her breasts, epitomising the guru-philosopher Osho’s theory of Sambhog Se Samadhi, meaning the ability to transcend the physicality of the body to enter a metaphysical realm. Even when sex with Mahesh is not forced, there is a certain duty on Manu’s part that comes through and she thinks of herself as a big boob that can be fondled by Mahesh.

Garg’s ideas about women’s individuality, her need for love and intimacy, and ideas about the reductive nature of home and marriage seem to reflect present discourses. This is also why, when it was published 40 years ago in Hindi, it was charged with obscenity. Garg was eventually arrested. Edited excerpts from an interview with Garg:

While the furore around the novel that led up to your eventual arrest is terrifying, to me, what’s scarier is the aftermath of such censorship.

It was not terrifying, just amazing and amusing, particularly since it came two years after a host of positive and almost ecstatic reviews had already been written about the book, and in Hindi, if you please. Yes, it was obnoxious the way the book’s censorship by the street junta was used to bracket me as a “bold” writer, meaning not courageous but sexual in Hindi. What hurt was not their uncouth stupidity but the fact that it was used as a weapon to stop evaluating my work in the manner it deserved. But truth and courage essential to literature finally win, as did I.

What role did Hindi-language politics play in prompting the ban? Do you think that the novel would have fared any better had it been written in English in the first place?

Hindi literary politics did play a part but the critics writing in English were not any less misogynistic. For example, Adil Jussawala, reviewing a collection of my stories, Daffodils On Fire, around that time, wrote, “Aversion, an understated story about a woman who has quietly gone mad and refuses to acknowledge the presence of her retired husband, is Garg at her best.” A classic case of killing with kindness! The protagonist was anything but mad. She was a poised householder who did not communicate with her husband because she did not want to.

How did living with unconventional women, some of whom find mention in your latest book, ‘Ve Nayyab Auratein’, help you create a character such as Manu?

The strong-willed but also extremely erudite and sensitive women portrayed in Ve Nayyab Auratein certainly influenced my development as a human being. My mother’s love of reading did propel me towards writing. My mother was such a voracious reader that at times she would forget to tell the cook what to make. She did not like to cook. Nobody in her husband’s family objected to it.

Manu’s self-effacing behaviour is deeply reminiscent of the middle-class upbringing of girls but it is strange how that conditioning doesn’t permeate into her decision of having an extra-marital affair. Nor do the husband, or even society, point fingers at her decision, which is so uncharacteristic of those times.

Manu’s behaviour can hardly be called self-effacing. But so be it. Society does not point a finger at her extra-marital affair as society is not informed about it by anyone! As for the husband, he would rather not know about it. He was one of those rare men who understood the paradox of love and was happy with what he had, instead of bemoaning what he did not have.

Though Hindi fiction has become receptive to themes of extra-marital and live-in relationships, the clout of censorship has been a disturbing recurrence in present times. The danger of going back to conservative moulds looms large, especially for Hindi literature. What should writers strive for in these turbulent times?

This is a far scarier scenario than any objections to so-called “adultery”, an outmoded word used only in courtrooms.

Going back to what you label conservative moulds actually implies going back to a horrendous divide between castes, religions and languages; propagating a language hegemony along with a moralistic religious hegemony. More than that, it implies imputing a divine right to the ruler to dictate how we think, whom we hate, how indifferent we are to inequity, injustice and the concept of constitutional law and order. Writers need not only write about our diversity and religious tolerance, they must actively air their views to larger audiences outside literature.

Kinshuk Gupta is a doctor and writer of Yeh Dil Hai Ki Chor Darwaja

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