I Take This Woman, Rajinder Singh Bedi, Translated from the Urdu by Khushwant Singh, New Delhi, Orient Paperbacks, 2007, Rs 175, pp.160.
Rajinder Singh Bedi (1915-1984) began his working life as a postal clerk but soon carved a place for himself in the canon of modern Urdu short stories with his very first collection, Dana-o-Dam, published in 1940. Details of everyday life, no matter how small, found a place in his stories and became reflections of a larger social reality. And it was this acute and faithful reflection of social realities that made the progressive writers -- already a force to reckon with in the early 1940s -- hail Bedi as a champion of the progressive movement and its ideology. It is another matter that with time, like many of his fellow writers who had initially embraced the progressive cause with whole-hearted enthusiasm, Bedi too began to distance himself from the more strident positions adopted by the PWA and the various forms of boycott the association had begun to adopt. Today, Bedi is remembered not so much as a progressive as a master story teller from the Punjab who wrote of lives that were shabby and commonplace but hidden in their very ordinariness, the human spirit shone through in all its lustre and brilliance. His stories survive the test of time because they hinge on the common and the commonplace that transcends time and circumstance. Human desires and aspiration just as much as human foibles and frailties neither change nor date; they are ageless and eternal.
Bedi was also actively involved with the film industry like many of his fellow progressives but his interest led him from writing the dialogue and screenplay of over 27 films to producing and directing memorable films like Garam Coat, Dastak and Phagun. Women occupied a central position in a great deal of Bedi’s writings and he has etched some memorable female characters: the eponymous Kalyani and Lajwanti, Indu in Apne Dukh Mujhe De Do (Give Me Your Sorrows), Rano in Ek Chadar Maili Si (A Slightly Soiled Sheet) and Ma in Banj (Barren Woman). Stories like Lajwanti, Zainul Abideen, Garhan (Eclipse), Garam Coat (Warm Coat) are testaments to the human condition; they do indeed conform to the prevalent literary more of realistic writing but they are as meaningful today as they were in the heydays of the trend towards socialist realism. However, the same Bedi who was hailed by the progressives as a champion of their cause because of his portrayal of lower middle-class working people later distanced himself due to his unwillingness to conform to communism and the soviet brand of socialist realism – the two factors increasingly stressed by the triumvirate among the hardcore progressive group, namely Sajjad Zaheer, Ali Sardar Jafri and Mulk Raj Anand.
Jafri, while expressing admiration for Garam Coat and Jhola, both early works, summed up the progressives’ disapproval of Bedi when he alluded to the bitterness that had begun to creep into his writing, pushing it towards despair and melancholia. The weft of bitterness that Jafri objected to does indeed run through the woof of life that is none-too-easy and offers neither immediate hope nor progress in stories like Man ki Man Mein (Silently Within the Heart), Apne Dukh Mujhe De Do (Give Me Your Sorrows), Ghar Mein Bazar Mein (At Home and in the Market), Quarantine, etc. However, one also finds flashes of love, humanity, compassion illuminating Bedi’s grim landscape making life worth living. His novella, Ek Chadar Maili Si is a perfect illustration. Written in 1962, it has been beautifully translated from the Urdu by Khushwant Singh, himself no stranger to the harshness and beauty of rural Punjab.
The story of Rano, married to Tiloka and tethered to a life of unyielding poverty, is actually a scathing critique of a social system where poverty is the root cause of all evil. The daughter of poor parents Rano is married off to Tiloka, an ekka driver. Though far from an ideal husband, Raano is largely content with her lot: her husband beats her when he gets drunks, her mother-in-law heaps abuses on her, and her parents have disappeared after dumping her at her husband’s home. Yet, her life in the village, which lies in the shadow of the great Himalayas with the sacred shrine of the goddess, Vaishno Devi, is as happy as it can be under the circumstances. She worries about her daughter, Waddi, for Rano knows the lot awaiting a poor man’s daughter:
‘O god, do not burden even an enemy with the curse of a daughter! She is hardly grown up when her parents throw her out to live among strangers; and if the parents-in-law don’t like her, they kick her back to her parents’ home. She’s like a ball made of cast-off rags. Only when she becomes heavy with her own tears is she incapable of being bounced to and fro.’
One day, while ferrying a 13-year old girl for the village headman’s lusty rendezvous, Tiloka is killed by the young girl’s enraged brother. Rano finds herself widowed and bereft of the only protection she has ever known; her marriage, far from happy though it was, at least afforded her a measure of protection and a buffer from the hostility of her mother-in-law. In a land with a notoriously skewered male-female ration, unattached women, regardless of their age or social status, pose a threat. Concerned friends and village elders put their heads together and come up with the only solution that custom allowed women in Rano’s situation: she must be married off to her dead husband’s younger brother. While the very idea is abhorrent to the two concerned parties – she because she has looked upon Mangal, her brother-in-law as her own child and Mangal because she is not just a loved sister-in-law but a mother-figure – individual will must be sacrificed in the face of a larger good. In a ceremony similar to a common law marriage, Rano and Mangal are not married around a sacred fire or a holy book; instead Mangal places a sheet over her as a sign of protection. A slightly soiled, somewhat tattered three-yard cambric sheet (a maili si chadar) then comes to signify a transference of shelter and security – from the dead husband to his younger brother, in this case younger by 12 or 14 years, one that the woman has almost suckled at her breast, one whom she looks upon as her own child. In return for this symbol of protection, the woman can continue to live under his roof, bear his children and perform all the duties of a wife. Initially reluctant, with time both Mangal and Rano get over their dilemma and find not merely consummation but passion also in a union that is at once primeval as it is prescribed. In the hands of a less gifted writer, this story would have been a pathetic tale of woman’s suppression and the wrongs that men do in the name of custom and continuity; in Bedi’s hands it becomes a story of the triumph of the human spirit above time and circumstance. And his Rano becomes a flesh and blood emblem of courage and strength.
(Rakhshanda Jalil is currently working on a biography of Dr Rashid Jahan, communist doctor and writer.)