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Why This 1961 Story Of A Single Woman Judged By Society Is Still Relevant After 50 Yrs

Posted: May 20, 2021

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With a single woman protagonist, a hostel warden whose life is dissected by everyone as an ‘oddity’, Fifty Five Pillars Red Walls remains very relevant even after 50 years.

Fifty Five Pillars, Red Walls, a classic written by Usha Priyamvada, was published in 1961. Back then, our society was unlike the one we live in, today, and yet similar on so many levels. Especially where women’s independence is concerned.

True, we women have come a long way from those days when our education, our career and living life on our own terms was considered insignificant, unnecessary, even. Today, women of some privilege often have the freedom to choose the field of education we wish to pursue. We are lauded for being ambitious. And, we also have the liberty to choose our life partners or stay single, or pick a live-in relationship over marriage.

So, yes, we women do live better lives today, if I may say so. However, if we were to scratch the surface a bit, we would discover how we really haven’t progressed as a society and how distorted is the sense of freedom we pride upon, or think we enjoy!

Fifty Five Pillars Red Walls is the story of Sushma, the eldest daughter of a family that depends upon her for survival. Sushma, a 33 year old, well-educated, financially independent woman, is a hostel warden, whose father receives a meagre pension that fails to support her large family. Sushma is the only one who has been given the permission to pursue a career, and now that she is well-settled in it, it’s up to her to provide for her family of her parents and her four siblings.

Sushma, being the good daughter, provides for her family’s needs and does so happily. However, there’s one thorn in the garden of her life, and that is the mother’s resistance to Sushma’s marriage. Her fear being that if Sushma were to get married, then she would leave her job and discontinue her support to her family, which would leave them in a quandary.

Sushma, who never shies from fulfilling her responsibility, and is proud of her accomplishments, does find herself at a loss as she realises that her life would only be that of a provider. That she will have to give up on her dreams of getting married and settling down.

Ironically, it’s even as she learns to live with this emotional burden, that she falls in love with a younger man. Fifty Five Pillars Red Walls is the story of how Sushma finds herself imprisoned behind the 55 pillars and the red walls of her college where she works as the warden, and where she might have to continue living for the sake of her family’s survival if they fail to understand her feelings.

A timeless story, Fifty Five Pillars Red Walls is relevant even today

The book may have been written fifty years ago, but it doesn’t seem old-fashioned in any way. Women today live like Sushma—well-educated, financially independent, looking after their needs and those of their family’s. We feel powerful from within thanks to our successful professional lives. We are capable enough to take decisions without help from the men in our lives.

But, just like Sushma, we also face society’s taunts and barbs when it finds us, fiercely independent women, living life on our own terms. Like, when we choose to stay single and prefer male company over our female friends. Or, choose our happiness over our responsibilities towards our family.  Women working till late hours, living alone, socialising with men are looked down upon by not just the colleagues, but also the family.

The labelling Indian women face if they do not toe the line

There are certain unwritten rules we are expected to follow, whatever be our social and professional standing. And, those who break the rules, or follow their own, have to live a life tormented by snide remarks and judgements made about their character. Just the way her colleagues do when Sushma meets and falls in love with Neel, a man several years younger than her, who visits her at her home in the hostel where she lives alone.

Not only her colleagues, but also her students dissect her personal life, put labels on her and conspire to have her fired for her ‘immoral conduct’, leaving Sushma in a state of despair.

As per her mother’s wishes, she takes a loan to get her younger sister married. But, when she thinks about her own marriage, she senses the silent disagreement by her mother.

Your heart goes out to her as you sense the loneliness and the agony she must feel, the aching in her heart when she forbids Neel to meet her. Neither her colleagues, nor her family are encouraging about a woman having a relationship with a man she might not marry. They fail to understand her feelings the same way people fail to understand women today, who wish to follow their heart’s desires. So what if they are financially independent? That gives them no freedom to live their personal life as per their wish!

Isn’t this a sad state of affairs where women, who contribute towards their family’s income, who are a major part of the workforce have to bow down to society’s rules when it comes to their personal matters? True, many women today refuse to accept society’s views about them and follow their own hearts. But, there are also women, who, like Sushma, face the dilemma that leaves them with nothing except heartache and a lifelong battle with the society that turns a blind eye towards men who get all they want, but refuses women the freedom to choose how they would like to lead their lives.

An important read on women’s history in India

Fifty Five Pillars Red WallsFifty Five Pillars Red Walls is a short novel, but an engrossing read. You feel happy reading about Sushma’s life away from her family, in her own home which she decorates as per her likes. Her sartorial sense which reflects her moods— her happiness on meeting Neel and also her sorrow on being tormented by the world.

You feel proud of how she managed to educate herself without any help from her family and find employment to support herself and her family. The confidence she holds in her heart for being a diligent worker who never gives others a chance to find faults in her gives us hope that we can live a similar life, ourselves!

The beautiful moments Sushma spends with Neel, who, fortunately for her, is a caring and an understanding man, have been penned with sensitivity. Every chapter keeps you wondering what the future holds for her.

Does Sushma finally get what she wants, or is she forced to live the life of a prisoner?

If women’s history and their struggle interests you, do pick up this beautiful book. It will give you a lot to ponder about how far we have come and how far we have to go.

Want your own copy of this book?

If you would like to pick up a copy of Fifty Five Pillars Red Walls by Usha Priyamvada, translated by Daisy Rockwell, use our affiliate link at Amazon India.

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Image source: a still from the TV series Pachpan Khambe Lal Deewarein based on the original book, and book cover Amazon

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