Sunday, November 07, 2004

Parineeta by Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay

# Paperback: 112 pages

# Publisher: Penguin Books,India (25 Aug 2005)

# Language: English (translated from the Bengali by Malobika Chaudhuri)

When I was in India in August this year I resolved to read atleast one Indian classic every couple of months. So far I've read Sarat Chandra's "Devdas" and Munshi Premachand's "Sevadasan", both were excellent and in that happy frame of mind I chose my third classic, Sarat Chandra's "Parineeta" (Espoused) and I wasn't disappointed. Parineeta is a beautiful love story that will tug at your heartstrings.

The protagonist is 13-year old Lalita who lives with her mother's brother because she is orphaned. Her uncle is not a rich man and has several daughters to marry off ( in India,especially in those days when the system of dowry prevailed, it was very expensive to marry one's daughter as the father traditionally had to bear all the expenses of the wedding andgive his daughter's inlaws cash and gifts besides).

Lalita is resigned to her fate and mature beyond her years. When her uncle's wife falls ill she is able to efficiently take over the household duties which include the cooking. You could almost describe her as a child without a childhood.

Shekhar, the spoiled, indecisive son of a wealthy industrialist is Lalita's neighbor. The two have known each other ever since Lalita moved to her uncle's house as a little girl. Being much older than her, he (Shekhar) is very protective towards Lalita and the two had an agreement that Lalita could help herself to money from Shekhar's money box whenever she desired, a habit that started when they were kids and continued right up until adulthood. Lalita, for her part, is totally devoted to him, she cleans his room, mends his clothes and runs errands for his mother.

One night, a night considered highly auspicious by Hindus, Lalita, while helping Shekhar to get dressed, playfully places a garland around Shekhar's neck (in Hindu weddings the exchange of garlands bears the same significance as an exchange of rings in western tradition), but because it was such an auspicious day, Lalita has inadvertently initiated a marriage with Shekhar.

As time goes by, Shekhar is embarrassed by the exchange of garlands with 14-year old Lalita and how seriously she takes her role as his wife. He is afraid of people finding out and what his parents might say especially as Lalita's uncle in having converted from Hinduism to Brahmo has deemed himself unworthy in their eyes (India, especially India of the early 20th-century which is when this book was written, had a very rigid caste system). It is only after Shekhar's dad, the patriarch of the house, dies that Shekhar has the courage to acknowledge without shame to the world that Lalita is his rightful wife*.

I've read only two of Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay's novels but both books delighted me to the point that I would slow down my reading just to prolong the novel. It has been said of Sarat Chandra...Saratbabu was to adult readers what Hans Christian Andersen was to children. He created a fairytale world where a neighbourhood girl could take out money from your locker (Parineeta), your sister-in-law could bring your child up as hers (Bindur Chhele) or a sex worker Sabitri could be a sacrificing angel (Charitraheen). Saratbabu was a deft magician who had his readers spellbound in a jiffy.'

If you enjoy good storytelling with strong, resiliant female protagonists and powerful discourses on the social issues that were prevalent in India in the early 20th century like (child marriage, the caste system, supersitions, and best of all delightful love stories diffused with pain and suffering, Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay is the author for you.

*(Some readers might balk at the thought of a 14-year old being permitted to marry but child marriages were the norm during much of Saratchandra Chattopadhyay's life (1876-1938).