Home fires: Review of’ ‘Fifty-five Pillars, Red Walls’ by Usha Priyamvada, trs Daisy Rockwell

The novel, written 60 years ago, could be the story of any young, urban, middle-class woman today

September 18, 2021 04:00 pm | Updated 04:00 pm IST

Mumbai, India - February 29, 2020: Indian woman wearing a sari waits for her train at Chatrapati Shivaji Terminus earlier known as Victoria Terminus in Mumbai, India

Mumbai, India - February 29, 2020: Indian woman wearing a sari waits for her train at Chatrapati Shivaji Terminus earlier known as Victoria Terminus in Mumbai, India

A Hindi novel published in 1961, translated 60 years later. Two generations have grown up since its writing. Both Delhi and Lady Shri Ram College — the title refers to its distinctive architecture — have changed drastically. No wonder everyone, including the author, tried to dissuade Daisy Rockwell from translating Usha Priyamvada’s debut novel, Pachpan Khambe, Laal Deewarein, saying it’s “dated”.

It is our gain that she didn’t heed them. Fifty-five Pillars, Red Walls could be the story of any young, urban, middle-class woman today, who, pushed into the role of the family breadwinner, is unable to fulfil her personal dreams.

Enduring appeal

The novel leaves you with a mix of emotions for the protagonist, through whose eyes the story is told. Sushma Sharma is a complex personality: vulnerable yet proud; resentful of her parents and also sensitive to their compulsions; possessed of a rare integrity that makes her intolerant of staff-room gossip about a colleague who has “infringed social boundaries” and also gives her the courage to live life the way she wants, until she too becomes the butt of such gossip.

Without pontificating, the book shows the casual insensitivity with which women are treated by everyone: prospective in-laws, close relatives, even mothers. Their feelings are taken to be of no consequence. “You’ve got very lazy, you do nothing at all! Why aren’t you knitting my sweater?” asks Sushma’s younger brother when she’s home on vacation.

It’s beyond her mother’s imagination that her attractive eldest daughter could be in a romantic relationship; even after she discovers she is, she asks Sushma to get the man married to her sister. Not once does she encourage her daughter, on whom she leans so much, to confide in her.

Literature and films have tackled similar themes: one outstanding example is the late Awtar Krishna Kaul’s National Award-winning movie,27 Down . There the heroine, who supports her family, is advised by

her mother that if at all she falls in love, it should be with a married man, to cancel out the possibility of marriage. Vijay Tendulkar’s play Shantata! Court Chalu Aahehas a group of teachers turn upon one of their own over her secret relationship with a married colleague. Interestingly, Tendulkar wrote his play in 1963, just two years after Pachpan Khambe was published. And 27 Down , made in 1974, is based on a Ramesh Bakshi novel published in 1966.

Both these works stand the test of time, as does Priyamvada’s novel, except in a couple of places.

Dead conventions

Marvelling at the change in herself after meeting Neel, Sushma recalls that earlier, when she talked to her friends, “she forgot that she was a woman, and a very attractive one at that; she spoke openly, discussed and debated. But with Neel?” Would an educated, urban, 21st century working woman resort to such a clichéd dichotomy? Does a knowledgeable, articulate woman get reduced to just an attractive face the moment a man enters her life?

There’s another even more unappealing stereotype: that of the sour, frustrated spinster, a colleague who cannot stomach Sushma’s relationship with a good-looking young man. In a novel peopled with well-rounded characters, this stereotype seems out of place, more so today.

The translation retains the flavour of the original Hindi, especially in phrases such as “his smiling face pierced her heart like a thousand arrows” or “the curtains fluttered like a heart at the touch of the beloved”. But did Sushma really “shrink” into the arms of her man? The word, occurring more than once, is confusing.

In its glimpse into the way dreams of young girls are broken by dead conventions, of the prison a successful single woman’s home can turn into, this novel rings true even today. No wonder Doordarshan chose to telecast it as a serial 32 years after it was written.

Fifty-five Pillars, Red Walls; Usha Priyamvada, trs Daisy Rockwell, Speaking Tiger,

The writer is a Mumbai-based freelance journalist.

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