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Love And Life Behind The Purdah: The Early Indian Women Writers series covers a few remarkable books by from the 1900 – 1950 period.
For anyone interested in reading about the lives of Indian women in the nineteenth century, the work of the pioneering social activist Cornelia Sorabji is one of the first places to begin.
Review by Uma Mahadevan-Dasgupta
This Oxford India reissue of Cornelia Sorabji’s collected fiction, Love and Life Behind the Purdah (first published in 1901) has a good introduction by editor Chandani Lokuge that puts Sorabji’s pioneering fiction in context.
Cornelia Sorabji’s own life story is both fascinating and tragic. Her father was a Zoroastrian Parsi who converted to Christianity, causing ripples in their circle; her mother was a tribal woman, possibly a Toda, from the Nilgiris who had been adopted by an army officer and his wife. The Sorabji couple’s commitment to social reform, education, and progressive thinking inspired Cornelia not only to study further – she became the first Indian woman to qualify in law from Oxford and then, thwarted from practising in the Bar because she was a woman, went on to represent Hindu purdahnashins – but also pervaded her writing with a deep sense of empathy for the underprivileged.
Cornelia encountered obstacles at every stage in her life – being awarded a Government of India scholarship only to have it invalidated due to gender discrimination; wanting to study medicine but having to turn to law; passing the BCL examination at Oxford but not being admitted to the Degree. Yet her struggles only seem to have strengthened her resolve, and she continued her work until the deterioration of her mental health and her hospitalisation in the mid-1940s. Incidentally, there is an inconsistency in the dates provided on the book jacket (1866-1952) and in the chronology inside (1866-1954).
Sorabji’s fiction draws from her rich experience in working with marginalised Indian women. Not only her childhood as the daughter of progressive reformers but also her own field experience showed her that reform did not mean any one magic quick-fix solution: the women she met and worked with were caught in diverse, complex circumstances.
In fiction, Sorabji found the space to trace the varied nuances of these lives. Not only the relationships of men and women, but also those within the community that lived behind the purdah: the subtle betrayals, the unspoken friendships, the solidarity, the generosity.
Whether we are seeing an old Shastri cremating his little grandchild, or a Parsi woman bringing her dead daughter home from the railway station, Sorabji’s storytelling is observant, detailed, and compassionate.
Whether we are seeing an old Shastri cremating his little grandchild, or a Parsi woman bringing her dead daughter home from the railway station, Sorabji’s storytelling is observant, detailed, and compassionate. Asked to administer ten thousand lashes to his wife as the orthodox punishment because her child died in her arms, Khursud painfully recalls their betrothal: “Makkhi, little Makkhi! What was it you wore the day we exchanged the betrothal ring?… Good God! I can’t!” But he does, and that is his tragedy.
Sorabji’s eye for the hypocrisies of the age is unsparing: whether it is the pundit Nano’s desire for his wife’s niece, or a king’s decision to take a fifth wife – it is not quite his wish, he tells the other queens apologetically, but “a political necessity…some political differences to adjust.”
The most powerful passage in this collection is in the first section of the short story “The Pestilence at Noonday”. A husband and wife are having a conversation. The husband is departing for other shores, leaving his wife behind at home. “I shall have many things to interest me,” he says to his wife. “Knowledge to acquire, the world to sample, a name to make. How, then, will there be room for thought of women, and petting, and suchlike?”
Through this section, the wife speaks a total of two lines, while the husband expounds in entire paragraphs. “I am sorry that I let them educate you,” he says when she protests mildly that he is being unkind – and goes on to list all the little ‘freedoms’ he has permitted her. Is he being ironical, she wonders: “Sita stole a look at him. No! he was quite serious.”
The husband, whose name is Het Ram, goes on: “Yes! The gods and fate have created you for my convenience and ministration; the only dignity which you will ever acquire will be incidental.”
The narrative then pulls back slightly, asking us to look at the two of them together by the lotus pond – “the man and woman; both strong, handsome young creatures, developed wholesomely, mind and body.” After a moment’s thought, silently, Sita walks away. “‘Sita!’ called her husband; but for once no little caressing creature came to rub a gentle cheek against his extended hand.”
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For readers outside India, you can get a copy of Love and Life Behind the Purdah (Oxford India Classic Reissue) via this link at Amazon.
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