‘My Family’ review: The discovery of love

In J.M. Coetzee’s The Lives of Animals, the novelist and philosopher Elizabeth Costello scandalises everyone by saying that slaughterhouses embody “an enterprise of degradation, cruelty and killing which rivals anything that the Third Reich was capable of.” Costello, a passionate advocate of animal rights, has been consumed by her beliefs in her old age — she cannot meet in the eye any meat-eating human, who looks like a criminal to her. Her son is embarrassed by her militant vegetarianism while his wife scoffs at it as a display of moral superiority.

All the criticisms directed against Costello are valid — perhaps as valid as her position that humans who kill animals for consumption are devoid of humanity.

Painful memory

Mahadevi Varma is a child when she realises for the first time that the chicks she cares for as her “children” are meant for the Miss Saheb’s dinner table. The little girl cannot wrap her head around this fact and bawls in outrage as she is overcome by a “nameless fear” — “If I could not keep track of the numbers and identifying marks of my non-human friends, anyone could take them away.” One can imagine adults laughing at her — as they do at Costello in her dotage — but here the child Mahadevi has arrived at one of the profoundest moral dilemmas, which she, like Costello, solves at the individual level by staying vegetarian for life. She has also discovered love — the acknowledgement of the reality of other creatures, whose pain she now feels as her own — and that turns her into a poet and writer.

Mahadevi Varma (1907- 1987) is considered the greatest 20th century woman poet in Hindi. She was also a novelist, translator, educator, editor and painter. My Family, translated from the Hindi Mera Parivar (1972), is a series of sketches of her animal friends — ranging from Neelkanth the Peacock, Gillu the Squirrel, Durmukh the Rabbit to Neelu the Dog and several others. Inspired by Gandhi and Buddhism, she spoke out against subjugation — whether of India under the British, of women in marriage or of animals — and put her beliefs into practice by educating girls and rescuing animals, often to release them back into the wild. She was obviously thought of as an eccentric and in My Family she can be found laughing at herself and others.

Understanding the other

But what stands out the most is the way she immerses herself in the lives of the animals. They are not cutesy buddies meant for entertainment but distinct personalities in their own right — Mahadevi raises them, names them, perceives them objectively and loves them as they are. They can be friendly, cantankerous or jealous, but all are documented with the seriousness one usually reserves for humans. In this if there is implied criticism of our callousness towards animals, Mahadevi keeps it subtle. When her cow Gaura dies of a needle probably fed to her by the milkman — apparently it is a common practice among milkmen to kill rival milch cows this way — she sighs, “Alas, my cow-protecting country!”

While Ruth Vanita’s introduction is superb, her translation is middling. But then, Mahadevi Varma’s unique Hindi, with its mythopoetic imagery and soft, musical words borrowed from Khari Boli, is difficult to replicate in English.

My Family; Mahadevi Varma, trs Ruth Vanita, Hamish Hamilton, ₹399.

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Printable version | Jan 29, 2022 7:57:32 PM |

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