Ennui as the heroine | Review of Usha Priyamvada’s Won’t You Stay, Radhika?, translated by Daisy Rockwell

Hindi writer Usha Priyamvada’s feminist novel finds new readers with the International Booker-winning Daisy Rockwell’s translation

Published - January 26, 2024 09:15 am IST

The book was first published in Hindi as ‘Rukogi Nahi Radhika’ in 1967.

The book was first published in Hindi as ‘Rukogi Nahi Radhika’ in 1967. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

It may not be auspicious for a book to begin with an introduction about ennui. But Daisy Rockwell gives the subject the same light touch she brings to the translation of Usha Priyamvada’s Won’t You Stay, Radhika?, framing it within the broader tradition of bourgeois languor as well as all the ennui-adjacent varieties of female melancholy that exist in literature and in life. 

The reader stands warned, prepared to examine the young protagonist with an attitude of forbearance. From such a candid and wry presenter, we expect a good translation, and that is just what we get. The novel itself is best experienced as a product of its time.

First published in Hindi as Rukogi Nahi Radhika in 1967, the story is about a young woman who returns to India after some years studying, and living with a man, in the United States. What drove her out of her father’s home in the first place was the arrival of a stepmother, and Radhika comes home to find the bitterness of their parting remains. 

The fact that her father no longer lives with his second wife, and instead sits brooding and solitary in one of his other bungalows, makes no difference. Radhika is unable to connect with any of her family, or her old friends. Each encounter seems to leave her exactly in the state of suspension that she experienced on her return home, if she can still call it home. Her conversations are exchanges of rote civilities and dutiful, joyless laughter, and the silences mean more than any words that are spoken. Her inner life is what drives the story onward. 

Revival of retro-feminist literature

Author Usha Priyamvada

Author Usha Priyamvada

The novel belongs to the body of retro-feminist literature that is being revived by one publishing house after another. Many Indian novels of the post-Independence era were written by authors of a particular pedigree, with the requisite time and wherewithal to explore the inner lives of urban women. 

Six decades on, publishers continue to favour queenly writers of the leisured classes who look good in soft-focus black-and-white photographs, and works like Priyamvada’s still seem to have a robust chance of appearing in print. 

A compelling case can be made that the revolution, such as it is, was actually achieved by those women who shouldered their rexine handbags and fought their way into packed trains to work in schools, banks, offices and thrumming factories. That it was their economic output and financial clout that have transformed the Indian woman of the 21st century, not the rarefied reasonings of their more privileged sisters. Whether those voices will be heard remains to be seen. 

All that history is perhaps too weighty to rest on the shoulders of this slim work. Wearing her ennui day after day, Radhika wends her way back to her beloved Papa, only to wonder whether she must flee again. The star of Priyamvada’s novel may not be one character or another, but ennui itself. 

Won’t You Stay, Radhika?
Usha Priyamvada, trs Daisy Rockwell
Speaking Tiger
₹350

The reviewer is the author of ‘Three Seasons: Notes from a Country Year’.

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