“Fifty Five Pillars, Red Walls”, a short story

    by Usha Priyamvada,
    translated from the Hindi by Daisy Rockwell

    The following is excerpt from Daisy Rockwell’s translator’s note where she talks about the datedness of the novel and women’s writing.

    II. On Datedness and Women’s Writing
    Despite Usha’s popularity in Hindi, none of her novels has ever been translated into English. Indeed, when I first proposed the translation, I was told by a number of different people (including the author herself !) that the work was too dated for our current era. ‘Translate my most recent novel,’ urged Usha in an email. ‘I fear that one is too dated.’

    Dated. This word was used by prospective editors and fellow translators alike. It is an interesting word to use. We say that hairstyles are dated. Skirt lengths. Movies from twenty years ago. But a novel published fifty-eight years ago, in 1961? I began to think about other novels that were published around the same time. Were they dated?

    In Hindi, there was Mohan Rakesh’s classic work Andhere Band Kamre (Closed, Dark Rooms), (translated as Lingering Shadows by Jai Ratan, Hind Pocket Books, 1970) published the very same year. Rakesh’s novel is considered a classic. It is also set in New Delhi, and it also concerns the sense of melancholy and alienation experienced in an urban setting by educated characters. Rakesh also writes about the tension between regressive traditions and modern, urban life. Why is his novel a classic, and not dated? Is it because Rakesh was not a ‘lady writer’?

    Khadija Mastur’s classic (there’s that word again!) Urdu novel Aangan, which I translated recently (The Women’s Courtyard, Penguin India, 2018) was first published in Pakistan in 1963. But while Fifty-five Pillars is set in New Delhi in the late ’50s, Aangan is set in the 1930s and ’40s pre-Partition India, and then a bit of post-Partition Pakistan. The genius of Aangan is in the strict formal constraint Mastur sets for herself: of placing all the action of the novel in the courtyard of the family home. We don’t even see what the women do when they leave that space. This constraint imposes upon the author a certain discipline. The main character, Aliya, never even enters the sitting room, or the baithak, which is a men’s space, except for when her uncle is in prison. An aangan is a constraint, and it is also a type of prison, a symbol for the actual limitations placed on women’s lives by patriarchy. By contrast, the setting of Fifty-five Pillars is one where women have considerably more freedom of movement than in the world of Aangan. In the end of Aangan, however, Aliya has moved to Pakistan, is the mistress of her home (which she shares with a difficult nagging mother, much like Sushma’s), and chooses a career of teaching over marriage, just like Sushma. So what makes Aangan a classic, and not dated? Is it because it is located more comfortably in the past?

    Interestingly, American poet Sylvia Plath’s novel The Bell Jar was published two years after Fifty-five Pillars, in 1963. The Bell Jar was just re-released in a special fiftieth anniversary edition in the US (it wasn’t published here until 1970). The Bell Jar is about a young woman on the threshold of life spiralling into depression and attempting suicide. As is well known, the author herself committed suicide the same year the book was published. The Bell Jar is considered a classic. The Bell Jar is not considered dated. Why? Because it is about creativity, depression and suicide? Are these more timeless themes? But some would argue that the image of the bell jar, which is a kind of inverted glass jar or dome used in scientific experiments that creates a vacuum-sealed environment, is actually a metaphor for societal pressures and expectations for women.

    Throughout the novel, the narrator frets about reproductive health, about her fears of getting impregnated and being unable to write anymore, about her anxious hopes of entering the workforce, about the double standards for men in both work and sexuality. She worries about marriage, and about whether it will prove limiting to her ability to write and if she will just end up spending all her time cooking and cleaning. As her mental health begins to improve, she has herself fitted for a diaphragm: birth control will improve her chances of independence, she hopes. She immediately goes to bed with a Harvard math professor she has just met. Soon after, she begins to haemorrhage and must be taken to the emergency room. No, it turns out birth control does not level the playing field.

    ‘To the person in the bell jar, blank and stopped as a dead baby, the world itself is a bad dream,’ writes Plath. The bell jar represents her depression, but it is also the imprisonment a woman feels as she comes of age. Both of these things will remain a constant, as she writes after successfully completing her treatment at a psychiatric hospital:

    …because wherever I sat—on the deck of a ship, or at a street cafe in Paris or Bangkok, I would be sitting under the same bell jar, stewing in my own sour air.

    Comparing The Bell Jar to Fifty-five Pillars or The Women’s Courtyard might seem absurd to many people. Esther in The Bell Jar is able to wander about the city streets at all hours, drink with strange men, get a job—she has sexual freedom and freedom of movement. How could these stories be compared! But whether you call it a courtyard, or pillars with walls, or a bell jar, that thing that these prisons all symbolize is still there, carried with one no matter where one goes, as Plath puts it.

    I would not presume to speak for those who find Fifty-five Pillars dated, but I do think it is important to reflect on the pejorative connotations of the term, linking it to ‘superficial’ feminine concerns, such as hair and clothing styles. What does it mean to dismiss an era of women’s struggles just because such struggles no longer trouble many women in the current era? So many of the burdens that women have always had to bear continue to exist, they just change shape and form. Entry into the workforce enables the rise of sexual harassment. The invention of labour-saving kitchen gadgetry does not change the fact that most women are still in charge of feeding their households. The availability of birth control does not make reproductive health problems disappear. Are the struggles of our mothers and grandmothers insignificant and uninteresting because we no longer face the same burdens? Is the history of women’s liberation as cringe-worthy as a closet full of yesterday’s styles? Why are we more accepting of women’s struggles in a more distant past? Do we dismiss Anna Karenina because no one would throw herself on a train track over a lousy boyfriend anymore? Do we lose interest in Jane Austen because women are allowed to inherit property in England now? Is the plight of Fantine in Les Miserables no longer interesting because no one would be forced to sell their hair and teeth to pay for low- quality childcare in modern France?

    Usha Priyamvada is among the leading figures of modern Indian literature. She was born in 1930 in Kanpur, and studied at Allahabad University.After teaching at Lady Shri Ram College and Allahabad University, she won a Fulbright fellowship to study comparative literature at the University of Indiana. Following that, she was hired at the University ofWisconsin, where she went on to teach for decades until her retirement in 2002. She has published seven novels, a study of Surdas, and numerous short stories.

     

    Daisy Rockwell is a painter, writer and translator living inVermont, USA. She holds a PhD in South Asian literature from the University of Chicago. She has translated Krishna Sobti’s most recent novel, A Gujarat Here, a Gujarat There (2019), as well as a number of other works, including Bhisham Sahni’s Tamas (2016), Upendranath Ashk’s Falling Walls (2015), and Khadija Mastur’s The Women’s Courtyard (2018).

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