03 June 2019

Sexed In, And Cast(E) Out Of, The City

by Simona Sawhney

Reviewed in The Book Review




Focusing on eight Hindi novels, Vasudha Dalmia’s new work traces the emergence of a modern urban culture in North India and the changing shapes of its political, aesthetic, and moral concerns. Beginning with Pariksha Guru by Lala Shrinivasdas (1882), the book engages, successively, Premchand’s Sevasadan (1918) and Karmabhumi (1932), Yashpal’s Jhuta Sach (1958, 1960), Agyeya’s Nadi ke Dweep (1948), Dharamvir Bharati’s Gunahom Ka Devata (1949), Rajendra Yadav’s Sara Akash (1951) and Mohan Rakesh’s Andhere Band Kamre (1961). Written during a period when print had an energy and power that has long been depleted, these novels actively participated in the forging of language, of sensibility, and of political and sexual subjectivity. Yet as Dalmia’s book progresses, certain strands come to the fore and gain evident prominence. In the epilogue, she reflects upon what became, for her, the most salient thematic link between the novels she has chosen: ‘the difficulties that women face in the social spaces they inhabit, and what they themselves say when they speak’ (p. 407).

When a book subtitled The Novel and the City in Modern North India describes its own central preoccupation thus—that is to say, when it recognizes the mapping of gender as its underlying and recurring concern—it also makes a striking and entirely persuasive claim about modern Indian fiction’s imagination of the urban. Dalmia’s readings demonstrate again and again that in the novels she examines, the imagination of the urban was inextricable from the figure of the woman. To explain this conjunction only by taking recourse to the overarching horizon of modernity would perhaps not enable us to take full cognizance of the proposition that it was crucially a certain image of the city, of the urban, that brought into focus a set of questions, not only about the feminine, but about sexuality, sex, and indeed the subject as sexed.

It seems to me that such a proposition may be glimpsed at several moments in the book. Let me briefly discuss one such instance. In Chapter 2, ‘Wife and Courtesan in Banaras’, Dalmia focuses on Premchand’s Hindi novel Sevasadan (1918), originally written in Urdu in 1917 under the more risqué title Bazar-e-Husn (The Market of Beauty). As she does in every chapter, Dalmia gives us, in considerable detail, the plot of the novel, interspersed with her own comments and analyses, as well as the remarks of other, often earlier, critics. It is in part this practice of narration that makes a fairly long book immensely readable and pleasurable. She also gives us a rich sense of the structural transformations that affected most North Indian cities after 1857, when the Muslim elite were either killed, forced to flee, or effectively marginalized. The restructuring of space and economy was to the distinct advantage of upper caste Hindus, as ‘Hindi-Hindu and Urdu-Muslim grew increasingly bifurcated’ (p. 26). The protagonists of all her novels emerge, she writes, from the ranks of this very Hindu culture that modernized after 1857.

Sevasadan is from one perspective the story of a city, Banaras, coming to terms with the shifting struggle between Hindu and Muslim merchants and professionals after the passing of the Municipalities Act of 1916. Through Dalmia’s commentary, we see how Premchand’s satirical rendering of the Municipal Board debates about the relocation of courtesans (from the center of the city to its outskirts) not only foregrounds his critique of the votaries of social reform, but also reveals the communalized scaffolding of every such debate. But we also see that at the heart of the novel is the figure of Suman, the wife who becomes a courtesan because she finds a loveless marriage too constrictive. Dalmia argues, in effect, that the intensity invested in Suman by the writing, in her beauty, passion, and intelligence, undercuts the novel’s ‘pious’ conclusion where Suman must leave the profession and end up teaching at an institution for the daughters of former prostitutes (the Sevasadan of the title). We might rephrase the argument thus: even if, at the level of the plot, Suman has found a place in Banaras, in truth, the novel has shown that there is no place for her—that is to say, no place for an upper caste woman who seeks a different relation to sexuality than the one ordained by an exploitative patriarchy. Ostensibly a narrative about the reform or taming of Suman (p. 145), the novel in fact becomes a lament for her ostracization; it becomes, as Dalmia writes, a tragic tale.

The lament echoes through Dalmia’s book. Its echo reminds us that we encounter just such a destroyed or banished figure in several of these novels—in Agyeya’s Nadi Ke Dweep (1952), Bharati’s Gunahon ka Devata (1949), Yadav’s Sara Akash (1960) and Mohan Rakesh’s Andhere Band Kamre (1961). The space of the city allows for the emergence of the upper caste woman as sexed and desirous but it can, almost literally, find no space for her, as she wanders through railway waiting rooms, like Rekha in Nadi ke Dweep, escapes to the roof to weep, like Prabha in Sara Akash, or, in the most explicit version, dies in excruciating pain in Bharati’s Gunahon ka Devata. As I read Dalmia’s book, the North Indian cities of which she wrote with such fine historical nuance began to morph, first into mass graveyards of the Muslims systematically killed or driven out after 1857 (Dalmia’s citation from Arvind Krishna Mehrotra’s The Last Bungalow (p. 23) is particularly vivid in this regard), and then into troubled sites haunted by the ghosts of these alluring, banished women.

Though the latter image, unlike the former, emerges specifically from the world of literature, like Dalmia, I would hesitate to simply blame the misogyny of the authors for this banishing. However, where Dalmia seems most interested in perceiving these characters and their travails in connection with socio-historical developments, mapping their itineraries on the changing landscape of North Indian cities with their new-styled homes, shopping centers, and most importantly, colleges and universities, or in exploring the ways in which the nationalist movement and access to education led to unprecedented yet limited freedom for middle class women, I wish she had paid more attention to their literary and symbolic function. In this vein, I wonder whether these narratives are not, for the most part, essentially about a certain crisis of masculinity, and whether these female characters don’t appear in these texts primarily to dramatize such a crisis. The fact that in some narratives the male protagonist (invariably Hindu and upper caste) encounters a series of women, and that these women are quite strikingly differentiated in terms of their religion and caste, makes their symbolic function all the more evident.

I am thinking here especially of Amarkant in Karmabhumi and Chandar in Gunahon Ka Devata. Dalmia, however, pursues a different line of thought, mostly reading the fiction, as her title says, as history. Her book suggests that these urban male protagonists, in the midst of immense domestic or political turmoil, encounter in the female protagonists an unexpected force, one that they are often unable to accept, understand, or even face. Whether it be Amarkant in Karmabhumi, Bhuvan in Nadi Ke Dweep, or Madhusudan in Andhere Band Kamre, they struggle in each case to come to terms with the desire for autonomy, the passion, or the creativity of the women with whom they find themselves in a kind of contest. Analogously, her readings suggest that the narratives themselves are at times unsure about how to accommodate or resolve the questions posed by these women characters. It is these characters who come to dominate the affective space of the novels, even if they find themselves displaced in their own homes and cities. Hence, though at one level the novels do take on some of the functions of social history (in a different context, Dalmia writes about the unparalleled ethnographic description of refugee camps in Yashpal’s Jhootha Sach), at another level they perhaps compensate for social history by providing, as it were, a space where difficult characters and questions can make a lasting and effective appearance.

Laudable as such efforts at compensation might be, we cannot but be reminded, over and over again, of Dalmia’s observation early in the book that these great novels, the first modern and modernist novels in Hindi, tell the story only of the modernization of the Hindu upper caste. In her earlier work the historian Mrinalini Sinha made a powerful argument about what she calls the ‘hypervisibility’ of liberal Indian feminism in the interwar period1. Liberal Indian feminism, she said, precisely by making a significant contribution to the consolidation of the neutral or universal citizen-subject, also played the role of rendering alternative subaltern modernities parochial and limited. While this claim cannot be entirely mapped onto the novels Dalmia discusses, it may be productive to bring Sinha’s argument into the picture, insofar as it helps us to notice how the upper caste Hindu woman assumes her position as the rightful subject of nationalist modernity by specifically differentiating herself from Christian, Muslim, or Dalit women. This is perhaps most obvious in Premchand’s Karmabhumi, where, as Dalmia notes, Dalits themselves seem to have little agency in the temple entry agitation which brings the upper caste Sukhada to the forefront of public life.

Though a political critique of the projects of the novels is at times visible in Dalmia’s commentary, such critique is rarely extended or developed. Dalmia seems primarily interested in locating the novels within intellectual and social history, and she is in some ways uniquely positioned to do so, at least in English writing. I can think of very few scholars who would have as sure and comprehensive an understanding, not only of these novels, but of the novelists themselves, of the other texts they wrote and read, of debates in Hindi writing of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and of the intellectual history of Hindi thought. Perhaps precisely because she brings to this book her formidable reading and study of many decades, it seems that her relation to the material takes the form of an inheritance. This is however, a difficult inheritance, for the act of becoming an heir, of assuming that position, cannot be dissociated, in this instance, from an acute awareness of precisely the dearth of heirs. Thus, a consciousness of loss, of something lost, seemed to me to lie at the origin of the book. Though at times it merges with the other losses of which the book speaks— for instance, the loss of the splendour of North Indian cities prior to 1857, or the loss of the spirited, fiery women who are ‘tamed’ or exiled even by narratives of putative ‘empowerment’—this loss remains nevertheless distinct, recognizable in its specificity. A sense of the absence or loss of readers, critics and writers who today would recognize in the works of these monumental authors an intellectual legacy they value flows like a subterranean stream through the book. Dalmia is writing defiantly (as she has been writing for long) in the face of, even against this loss, this poverty. The extended plot summaries may hence be a way of reaching out to a potential new audience of Anglophone teachers and students in India, who may not have hitherto taken seriously these landmarks of Hindi literature.

It is perhaps this very mode of positioning herself as an heir that also prevents Dalmia from being more critical of the positions adopted by the novels. Though she indeed makes critical remarks at various junctures, she rarely develops them into substantive arguments. As I have indicated already, the novels’ treatment of caste or their often unselfconscious adoption of the male subject position may have warranted greater scrutiny. In a similar manner, the privileging of ‘individualism’ in some of these texts and their implicit critique of the Progressive Writers (as in the case of Bharati) could have been examined more critically. In this context, Nancy Armstrong’s fascinating work on the production of individuals and the consolidation and propagation of individualism by the English novel might have been of interest to Dalmia (she does cite Armstrong but not in terms of this argument).

These comments, however, must not be read as complaints—they are, rather, my own response to the discussion inaugurated by a remarkable book that takes seriously the complex relations between intellectual, social, and literary history in North India. To re-view a work, after all, is to look at it again, and hence to bring to it as well the gaze of other texts, other thinkers.


Simona Sawhney teaches in the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences at IIT-Delhi.


Fiction as History by Vasudha Dalmia is published by Permanent Black (2017), 428pp.