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A sensitive book; a hackneyed film


You've seen Pradeep Sarkar's "Parineeta". Now read Saratchandra's Parineeta and figure out where the film fails.

LOST IN TRANSLATION: The film ignores the social realities of that time.

PRADEEP SARKAR'S film "Parineeta", produced by Vidhu Vinod Chopra, has generated interest in Saratchandra's novel. But it is interesting to note the striking divergences between the novel and the film.Published in 1914, Saratchandra's Parineeta is set in the early 20th century. Lalita, at the time of innocently garlanding Shekhar, is 14 years old.

Striking differences

Shekhar is much older and driven by a passion in which, as Swagato Ganguly points out in his introduction to the Penguin India translation, "desire and disgust intermingle".Child marriages were customary at the time, and not prohibited by law. The orphan Lalita has grown up performing Shekhar's errands for him, but marriage between the two is out of the question because of the difference in their castes, class and status. Nevertheless, Lalita and Shekhar exchange a flower garland in a complex moment during the "wedding" of Lalita's cousin's doll. But it is only years later, after Nabin Roy dies, that Shekhar will formally acknowledge his relationship with Lalita.

Gurucharan, Lalita's uncle, is a clerk, impoverished by having had to marry off his daughters with heavy dowries. Tired of the demands of religion and custom, he eventually gives up being a Hindu and becomes a Brahmo: and this is the central moment in the novel. By this act, he earns the wrath of Nabin Roy, Shekhar's father, who immediately has a wall built between the two houses.

In the opening lines of the novel, we see the shrivelled-up clerk, Gurucharan, receiving with anguish the news of his fifth daughter's birth. Hookah in hand, lying on his bed, he recalls all his troubles, from the mortgage on his house to the lack of proper clothes to wear to work. All this, established in the opening paragraphs: typical of the range of Saratchandra's humane and complex realism.

The novelist's life, too, began in poverty, in a poor Brahmin family in a Bengal village. Saratchandra understands that poverty and care can shrivel people and wear them down, and that this is the stuff that life is made up of. This is what he writes about. A man who's been told that he can't wear unkempt clothes to work, but whose washerwoman has vanished with half his clothes. The most mundane thing, but it's also what poverty is all about.

And poverty and helplessness are what drive Gurucharan to an act of rebellion by becoming a Brahmo. The most heartfelt speech in the novel is his, when he tells Nabin Babu: "I did not know if my problems would lead me to putting a noose around my neck or whether I should surrender to the Almighty - I did not know which way to go. Ultimately, instead of committing suicide, I decided to submit to divinity... and so converted."

Ambivalent heroes

On the other hand, here is Shekhar's reaction within the novel: "Ma will not want to accept you...all of you are Brahmos and we are Hindus," he says to Lalita later. Later, he reflects: "It was a fact that he could not marry Lalita without his parents' consent. However, if the cause for her marriage to Girin not taking place were made public, how would he be able to handle all the gossip that would reverberate all around?"

Shekhar, then, is not just a sweet young man under his father's thumb; he's a person with his own weaknesses.

No wonder, then, that Swagato Ganguly, in his excellent introduction to the Penguin India translation, remarks on the ambivalence of Saratchandra's heroes: "Compared to the heroes of Tagore's fiction, who are mostly serious and reflective people, Saratchandra's heroes act on impulse and can appear vacillating, indecisive, even petulant... A common theme in his novels is sacrifice, which sublimates desire and acts as a redemptive force. Thus Lalita puts her entire life at stake, and gives up Girin who wants to marry her, because Shekhar had once enacted the Hindu rite of marriage with her even if he disowns her afterwards. But Saratchandra speaks equally eloquently of the discontents of that sacrifice, which is the source of the ambivalence in his heroes as well as his stories... The ambivalence of his characters is, at bottom, the ambivalence felt by tradition-bound individuals cast adrift, yet also paradoxically empowered, by a slowly but irrevocably modernising society."

Adapting the novel to an early 1960s setting for the film means that certain changes will follow: but my difficulty is that there is no apparent reason for the shift in time, while only taking away the essence of Saratchandra's social realism. It retains only the shell of the love interest, and that too rendered unproblematic.

There is far more tension between Lalita and Shekhar than the new film version shows us. At one point Lalita retorts to Shekhar that she will resort to "whatever women have to do", if necessary, in order to return the money. Even in the last lines of the novel, Lalita is speaking to Shekhar's mother Bhuvaneshwari (a far more interesting character in the novel than in the film) about Girin's qualities, and not those of Shekhar.

Saratchandra's novel is set in a city that is modernising painfully at the turn of the century, where social and religious rituals have become oppressively demanding, and where caste and class, gender and religion dictate the permutations of human relationships.

Here is a novel that documents this in a sensitive, complex story, and it is turned into a trite love story instead. Could it be because this is all we want to see when we look back at the past?

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