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Your weekend fix: Lounge recommends ‘Bhairavi’ by Shivani

A romantic tragedy with gothic undertones, this novel by one of Hindi’s most loved writers bristles with an untamed energy

A depiction of the Goddess Bhairavi and Shiva in a charnel ground, from a 17th century manuscript. Wikipedia/Creative Commons
A depiction of the Goddess Bhairavi and Shiva in a charnel ground, from a 17th century manuscript. Wikipedia/Creative Commons

To most readers of Hindi, the name of Shivani, the nom de plume of writer Gaura Pant (1923-2003), does not need an introduction. Prolific and popular, she wrote hundreds of articles, essays and stories for a variety of magazines, as well as 40 novels, most of which remain in print. Some of her much-beloved works, such as Surangama and Rativilap, were televised into serials, others adapted to the big screen. Her fictional universe features a dazzling array of women, characters who remain memorable not only for their bravado and indomitable spirit, but also for their failures and vulnerabilities.

It’s tricky to introduce Shivani to Anglophone readers, who may find her tales titillating, melodramatic, fanciful, and even pulpy. While powerful and exceptional women abound in her stories, Shivani's politics is hard to pin down as avowedly feminist, primarily because she grew up in a socially conservative milieu.

Priyanka Sarkar, Shivani’s latest English translator, not only does an admirable job of breathing fresh life into her iconic novel Bhairavi, but also of giving the Anglophone reader a familiar handle into the writer’s appeal. As Sarkar writes in the Preface, “In some ways, Bhairavi is Shivani’s Northanger Abbey. Apart from the Austen vibes, Shivani was also deeply influenced by Daphne du Maurier, the queen of the modern gothic.” One may also be reminded of the French writer Colette, who shook up Parisian high society with the scandalous romantic escapades of her heroines in the first half of the 20th century.

If Sarkar’s clever framing of Shivani’s literary antecedents whets the appetite, journalist and writer Mrinal Pande’s Foreword paints a compelling portrait of her mother, as a writer and human being. “Till the end, Shivani remained a kaleidoscopic character for me,” Pande writes with the fascination of an admiring reader and the loving exasperation of a daughter. Shivani was, as Pande goes on to say, “outwardly traditional but bold, perverse, un-beholden and totally free when she puts pen to paper.”

The front cover of 'Bhairavi', published by Simon & Schuster and Yoda Press.
The front cover of 'Bhairavi', published by Simon & Schuster and Yoda Press.

In a tribute published in the feminist journal Manushi, Ira Pande, Mrinal’s sister, also mentions “a curious dichotomy” that characterised their mother's persona. Fluent in Bengali, Gujarat, Hindi, and English, Shivani was schooled in the ambience of genteel refinement created by Rabindranath Tagore in Santiniketan until 1943. Her early stories were written in Bengali, before she switched to Hindi. However, as she evolved into a writer with a distinctive voice, Shivani ventured into terrains that were well beyond her immediate experience of life. A sense of daring, of a divided writerly self, comes through in Bhairavi, too.

As with many of Shivani’s stories, a beautiful woman from the Kumaon hills is at the heart of the novel. Chandan leads a sheltered life under the iron thumb of her mother Rajrajeshwari, until a chance encounter with a city boy changes her fortunes. Married into a wealthy urban family, Chandan struggles to adapt to an unfamiliar tenor of life. Just as things appear to be looking up, fate intervenes cruelly. Following a tragic turn of events, Chandan ends up in a crematorium, among drug addicts and tantriks, where she is rechristened Bhairavi. Interwoven with Chandan's saga is Rajrajeshwari’s own story of thwarted love, and the pain of unfulfilled desire she must bear all her life with dignity and poise.

The plot of Bhairavi gallops like a wild horse. There is untrammelled energy to its pace but also elegance and moments of quiet beauty. The narrative pans back to the past, zooms into the present, characters come and go—yet the appeal of the story never slackens. If Shivani demands the reader’s willing suspension of disbelief, the inventive turns of her story—tracing the transformation of an innocent pahadi maiden into a denizen of a crematorium and finally a vagrant—more than make up for it.

Considering the contradictory personalities Gaura Pant inhabited during her lifetime—as a wife, mother and householder steeped in traditional patriarchal values, and a writer who wrote with reckless abandon, throwing caution to the wind—it is hardly surprising that her protagonist, Chandan, should also mirror some of those qualities. In spite of the vicissitudes of life she suffers, Chandan leaves a mark on the reader, not as a maudlin heroine but rather as a woman who rides the storm without succumbing to self-pity.

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