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The Early Indian Women Writers series reviews a few remarkable books by Indian women from the 1900 – 1950 period.
Two feminist novellas by an Indian author published in the early twentieth century? I was intrigued before I started the book. It more than lived up to my expectations.
Sultana’s Dream is a short story, merely 14 pages long. It’s quite literally, the description of a dream of the character Sultana, who finds herself in Ladyland, where the men are in purdah (“mardana”) and the women roam the streets freely and run the country. But it’s a picture painted not with bitterness but with wit. It was not only full of arguments that are relevant today but also a very enjoyable read.
Especially in the light of recent developments, it seems very apt that the character Sara says, “Men, who do or at least are capable of doing no end of mischief, are let loose and the innocent women are shut up in the zenana! How can you trust those untrained men out of doors?”
My one criticism is it’s too idealistic a picture: implying men are evil and women are full of intrinsic goodness is both simplistic and untrue. Surely a Ladyland would also have its criminals and its slackers. Surely the men wouldn’t be happy in seclusion. Surely utopia would have people mingle freely and work at what they are happiest doing, regardless of gender. But this utopia is served up to us only as a contrast to what we witness otherwise, and as such, it works very well.
Padmarag is also a feminist dream, in a different sense. Most of the events in the novel happen in or around the inhabitants of a place, Tarini Bhawan, that include a school, a hospital and a home for women. Tarini Sen is both the founder and head of Tarini Bhawan, a widow who disregards the wishes of the rest of the family and chooses to spend her wealth and her money working with and for people who seem to need her help.
As a feminist utopia, Tarini Bhawan is nearly as fantastic as Ladyland. The women (and a few men) work together and prefer to live within this feminist society than in the patriarchal one where they were mistreated by men (and often by other women). If there is malice within the walls of Tarini Bhawan, the reader does not see it; everyone is willing to help her sister, and there is both happiness and laughter here. The only censure comes from outside the walls – inside, all is harmony and light. A bit unrealistic, yes, but a very appealing picture!
The heroine herself, Padmarag (as named by Tarini Sen: the name she takes for herself is Siddika, and her real name is yet something else), has the circumstances of a typical damsel-in-distress. A beautiful young woman from the landowning class, educated well though at home, suddenly finds herself alone and with nothing. But she is anything but helpless. She joins Tarini Sen’s troop and learns skills that would make her more useful; she seems happier in her ascetic life that yet affords her both fruitful work and true companions than she ever was in the comfortable environs of her childhood home.
The book is also a quick and easy read; I picked it up one morning and didn’t get up again until it was done. Padmarag is translated from the original Bengali (by Barnita Bagchi), but it’s a superb translation that doesn’t get in the way of the reader’s enjoyment of the story.
One last note: don’t read the Introduction before you read the book; it contains spoilers.
Publishers: Penguin Books